Shortly after the dedication of the Haleakala solar observatory, a distinguished visitor appeared and asked permission to make some studies of the quality of the astronomical seeing at this site. His name was Gerard Kuiper, world-renowned astronomer and director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory based in Tucson, Arizona. He was interested in finding a superior site for a new telescope for his laboratory. With his assistant, Alika Herring and Alika’s superb 12-inch telescope, they found the seeing on Haleakala to be quite extraordinary. But on some nights there was a tendency for fog to climb over the summit and spoil observing. This is because Haleakala at 10,000 feet is not sufficiently higher than the normal inversion layer at around 8,000 feet to be always above the clouds. Looking across the channel to the Big Island (Hawai`i), Kuiper could see the summit of Mauna Kea high above the clouds and wondered if that peak might not be a better site.
Having also received an invitation from the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce to consider Mauna Kea for an observatory site, Dr. Kuiper visited the Big Island and expressed a desire to conduct a site evaluation, as he had done at Haleakala. Very soon the Governor of Hawaii, John Burns, released funds for the bulldozing of an access road to the summit of Mauna Kea. A small dome to house Alika’s telescope was set up on Pu`u Poliahu and the site study began. When completed, the study, to Dr. Kuiper’s delight, showed that Mauna Kea was a truly superb site, the finest he had ever seen. With this established, he submitted a proposal to NASA for a new telescope to be placed on Mauna Kea.
At this point, NASA decided to open the competition to other proposals and invited both the University of Hawaii and Harvard University to do so. The University of Hawaii had no astronomers experienced in telescope development, only the new team of solar astronomers. To Dr. John Jefferies, now in charge of the solar program, fell the responsibility of organizing an observatory development plan and submitting a proposal to NASA. The plan called for an 88-inch telescope. It was a well-conceived plan that ultimately won NASA’s approval for support! This outcome was, understandably, a terrible blow to Dr. Kuiper, who felt “his mountain” was “stolen” from him. Regardless of the outcome, Dr. Gerard Kuiper must be acknowledged as the discoverer of Mauna Kea as a superb astronomical site.
So, Mauna Kea’s incredible astronomical story begins with the construction of the University of Hawai`i’s 88-inch (2.2 meter) telescope. It is a story that has been told in various forms and places (16, 17).
For a continuation of the story of astronomy in Hawaii, go to the accompanying pages by John Jefferies, the first director of the IfA.