Starting the Mauna Kea project

In the fall of 1965 I went to Princeton to give some lectures on non-LTE. The timing was unfortunate – but I had contracted to give the course well before there was any thought of the new telescope and I just had to do the best I could. I had also planned to use the opportunity to complete writing a long-delayed book: I was spread too thinly and desperately needed help.

I had talked to several friends and colleagues hoping to interest them in joining us, but in truth there was little that I could offer but promise. Two people having the instrumentation expertise that we badly needed had been recommended to me and did rise to the opportunity. Bill Sinton was a planetary astronomer from Lowell Observatory, while Walter Bonsack, from Ohio State, was an experienced observer in stellar spectroscopy and both agreed to join the program and to help define the initial instrumentation.

While I knew something about the science – or in any case had the background to find out – I was totally out of my depth when it came to engineering, and from the outset I had been searching for someone to fill this need. I hardly expected that this would be an alluring position for an established observatory engineer, and random enquiries soon showed this to be so. I desperately needed a mechanical engineer, preferably one with experience in large telescopes, not only to work with Charlie Jones but to create a capability for building the instrumentation that would be needed for our burgeoning program. Those I knew of were already securely employed and had no thought of leaving for Hawaii – of all places!

At about that time I heard from an old friend (Dick Thomas) that Ann Merchant, a new graduate from Berkeley with an interest in stellar spectroscopy, might be interested in coming to Hawaii and that she had recently married (or was about to marry) an engineer, Hans Boesgaard, who had spent some years at Lick Observatory. This pair naturally attracted me very much and I followed up immediately, inviting them to a meeting with Charlie Jones, along with Bill Sinton and Walt Bonsack. It was the first time I had met any of these people; I was to be intimately associated for many years with all of them and all were to outlast me at the University of Hawaii.

It was easier to find someone to head an administrative office – Joe Byrne was a personable individual who quickly established contacts within the University’s central administration. Here he found some soul-mates, and as a result our budget and personnel allocations grew rapidly, far more so than would have been achieved with my more diffident approach. Joe’s somewhat swashbuckling style was well-adapted to the needs of our program in those days, and he contributed a great deal to the early growth of the Institute.

Quite apart from the extreme altitude, many aspects of the 84-inch project were novel. Kuiper’s first measurements had clearly indicated that the site was superb – indeed of unparalleled quality. Our own measurements had underlined this, and we were determined that our installation would detract as little as possible from the inherent qualities of the site.

A natural thing to do in this respect was to make sure that the heat generated within the building did not escape into the atmosphere above the telescope where it would create thermal inhomogeneities and compromise the seeing quality. To limit this, we proposed to cool the observing-level floor (with refrigerated piping) to the temperature anticipated for the coming night (which was fairly predictable). In addition we arranged that the exhaust air from the building would be directed down a tunnel to a remote location where it would spill down the mountain in the night-wind. These were, I believe, new ideas, at least in night-time telescopes, and in practice they seemed to work.

Although we had concluded that working at the Mauna Kea summit was practicable provided people followed simple precautions, we were in no doubt that mental and physical capabilities are diminished at such altitudes. Accordingly, we decided to include an oxygen-enrichment system in appropriate areas of the building: this was to be fed from a tanker-truck filled with liquid oxygen and located on a pad outside the building. As it turned out, we never found it necessary to activate the system, and it has surely long-since been forgotten.

A further innovation lay in our decision to control the telescope with an IBM computer (a model 1620, as I recall). This was certainly a very early instance of what is now universal practice. This proved to be less than a notable success, not because the concept was bad (although the manufacturer could not guarantee the performance of disk drives at 14000 feet) but because the contractor selected was unable to deliver, and we lacked the staff expertise to oversee their work. The control system remained the bane of my existence for years to come.

The telescope and building designs were completed, bids were accepted, and contracts let, and the great day of ground-breaking arrived on the autumnal equinox of 1967. Attired in suits and ties and equipped with gold shovels, representatives of the University, State, and contractor, together with the minister who was to give the Hawaiian blessing, stood on the pristine area to turn the first ground for the new project.

Construction on the telescope building was slow, however, being held up by heavy snows and hostile weather, combined with overconfidence on the contractor’s part. The main mounting and the optics were finished well before the building and had to be stored at the manufacturer’s plant. The project was finally completed in early 1970: with a little better luck with the weather and a little more prudence on the contractor’s part, we could have shaved a year off this time but probably not more. The dedication, in June 1970, was attended by Governor Burns and the new UH President, Harlan Cleveland. Kuiper attended and evidently gave his seal of approval; at least I saw no indication that he was unhappy – quite the contrary in fact.

While it was a great time for us, it was less profitable for the building contractor who had discounted the hardships of the mountain against their experience in Alaska. They lost a good deal of money on the project and ended up (in 1970/71) suing the State on the fragile ground that we in the project had withheld information on the severity of Mauna Kea’s weather! The court found the suit to be without merit.

Although originally conceived as an 84-inch telescope, we ended up with an 88-inch diameter instrument, now usually referred to by its metric equivalent – the 2.2-meter telescope.