John Jefferies: The Visionary

John T. Jefferies arrived in Hawai’i in August of 1964 to build a small program in solar physics at the University of Hawaii, but this modest beginning was destined soon to blossom into something that few could have anticipated. Jefferies went on to found the UH Institute for Astronomy and created an international research program within it while, during his tenure, a new generation of telescopes was established on Mauna Kea which led to its becoming the greatest observatory site in the Northern Hemisphere.

Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope groundbreaking on Maunakea, July 2, 1974. L to R: Mr. Guy Vachon (SNC, Inc., Canada); Rev. Israel Kamoku; Dr. John T. Jefferies (University of Hawai‘i): Dr. Roger Cayrel (Chief Project Officer,CFHT Corporation); Dr. Kenneth Wright (Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, Victoria, B.C.); and Mr. John Hoag (University of Hawai‘i Board of Regents)

“In the formative years right after statehood, Gov. John Burns had a strong wish to open up possibilities for the islands to more than just welcoming visitors,” Jefferies recalled. Hawaii’s high peaks were getting attention for their potential for astronomical research, and when NASA launched the idea of a telescope in Hawai’i to support its space program, it received competing proposals to do this from both Harvard and the University of Arizona.

“I recognized from the beginning that Mauna Kea had the potential to be a pre-eminent international site,” Jefferies says. “And somewhat tentatively I prepared a competing proposal on behalf of UH.”

As it turned out NASA favored the UH proposal and by the early spring of 1965, Jefferies was awarded $3 million to build a major facility in Hawaii, which we now know as the 88-inch or 2.2 meter telescope. The state of Hawaii would provide support buildings at Hale Pohaku, a road, and a power line as well as state government positions for astronomers and engineers.

“It was as though a curtain was drawn back on a new brilliant world of opportunities,” he said. “We had been a little program in solar physics … but here was the whole world of astronomy opening to us through the acquisition of this telescope. It was a wonderful feeling.”

In 1967, Jefferies was named first director of the new Institute for Astronomy. It was clear that a dedicated building would be needed to house this burgeoning program but it was not until 1975 that construction finally began in Manoa, an intimate design of three buildings around an expansive courtyard.

“On its completion in 1977, we all felt a sense of elation,” Jefferies said. The building was everything we hoped for and its celebration was the first of many held in the courtyard on velvet Hawaiian nights.”

During Jefferies’ tenure as Director of the Institute, five more telescopes were commissioned: the Canada France Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF), United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), two 24-inch UH telescopes, Caltech Submillimeter (CSO), and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT).

“The CFHT was the first of these and it marked the entry of Mauna Kea into the big, international leagues of astronomy, and was a key step forward in the growth of the IFA. The agreement guaranteed telescope time for UH astronomers, which (with similar agreements with later users) was an essential step in making the Institute into the great astronomy program that it has become.”  —  John Jefferies