International Year of Astronomy Public Observatory Project at The National Air and Space Museum

Posted on Sun, March 29, 2009

2009 is the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of a telescope to examine the Moon, Venus, Jupiter and the Milky Way.  He probably wasn’t the first to do so, and of course he didn’t invent the telescope.  But he was the first to tell the world about what he saw, in terms everyone could understand and appreciate.  That is why the International Year of Astronomy has as its central goal giving as many people as possible the chance to look through a telescope and to enjoy the practice of doing astronomy, just like Galileo did, and better even! The idea of such a celebration was born at a meeting of the International Astronomical Union. Once every three years, astronomers from all over the world meet in General Assembly.The last time was August 2006, in Prague. While some astronomers unceremoniously demoted Pluto at this meeting, others vowed to reaffirm that astronomy is for everybody, and is everywhere and anywhere you can see the sky,day or night. Some even proclaimed that they'd make it their mission to help anyone who wished to have the opportunity to peer through a telescope at a star, the Sun, Moon or a planet. I was at that meeting,and thought it was a terrific idea. No, not demoting Pluto, but the IYA. I remember asking myself, how can The National Air and Space Museum contribute to this wonderful goal? The Washington Mall is not the best place to view the night sky, or the day sky for that matter. But it is where the people are - people of every shape, size, gender, persuasion. It's one thing to get people to go where telescopes are, but its quite another to bring telescopes to the people. John Dobson and the San Francisco Sidewalk astronomers know that. So I took a tip from them and decided to build a public telescope on a Washington sidewalk, or as close as the Fine Arts Commission and the National Capitol Planning Commission would allow. Thus was born the Public Observatory Project at the National Air and Space Museum. POP's goal is to put a high-end fully professional telescope where the people are. These will be people who are not looking for a telescope to look through. No, these are the millions of people who come to Washington, to the Mall, to find themselves and their heritage. Encountering a telescope in the process, a big one in a visible white dome, one that can show you celestial sights of all sorts, will be a surprise for some, hopefully a delight to all. A modest value-added experience to what is a lifetime pilgrimage for many Americans. This had been a dream of mine for years, before anyone spoke of the IYA. I fantasized turning any one of the many domes on the Mall into an observatory. The Capitol dome! Natural History's rotunda! The National Gallery rotunda! Why, even the Washington Monument would make a great mounting for a gigantic aerial telescope tube or a super heliostat. Why not put a dome on the Hirshhorn, and stick a telescope inside? The Mall has its monuments. What it needs is a portal, a portal to the universe. Many years ago, George Ellery Hale had this dream. When he built the National Academy, he installed a small solar telescope in the rotunda. It's still there. Maybe someone will clean it up and open it for the public someday But the Smithsonian can't tell the National Academy what it should do. No, I had to work from strength.

Last spring I was invited to inspect the Oak Ridge Observatory built by Harvard in the 1930s and sustained by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory since the 1980s. It's many small and medium-sized telescopes had been modified countless times, and many of them contributed significantly to knowledge in astronomy. It was closed down in 2005, a victim of changing priorities in astronomy as the combined Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics pursued its world-class programs in Arizona, in Hawaii, at the South Pole, and in space. I inspected the site, in Harvard, Massachusetts, just west of Concord, with Sara Schechner, curator of scientific instruments at Harvard. We found many priceless gems: Henry Draper's 11-inch three-element Clark photographic refractor telescope from 1880, the first to be used to photograph a nebula. It was painted a flat, almost pastel red, in memory of its last observing site in Jamaica before World War I. There were three "super-Schmidt" meteor cameras, there were Metcalf astrographs from Harvard's many observing stations, and there was the famous 61-inch Wyeth reflector, the largest astronomical telescope east of the Mississippi. All of them were closed down, rusty and dusty, neglected in their dilapidated and leaky observing chambers. But there was one telescope, a lovely blue and white Boller & Chivens 16-inch telescope from 1967, sitting in a secure dome and 100 percent intact, still operating, but without portfolio. Kept running, clean and shiny, by the observatory technician, Joe Zajac, it stood there ready to be used. All one had to do was open the dome, throw a few switches, and kick out the animals.

But for me, the stars were finally in alignment.The spirit of the IYA, a museum and observatory staff that appreciated the value of an active astronomy outreach program, and the perfect telescope to do it with, all came together. I camped out at the National Science Foundation until, late in the fall, after a peer-review process and favorable reviews by the Fine Arts Commission, the National Capitol Planning Commission and the DC Historical Commission, we were given the green light. This was not my first experience building an observatory. But it was unlike any I encountered in the past. The process is still unfolding, and it is a journey of discovery, some frustration (it is Washington, after all), but most of all, elation and joy. I teamed up with Frank Florentine, the Museum's tenacious project manager who brought to completion, under budget, our highly successful Explore the Universe gallery in 2001. POP is in many ways for me an extension of ETU, and as with ETU, POP's success will depend upon capturing the hearts and minds of the talented craftsmen and engineers at the Smithsonian. Many have joined in, including Joe Zajac and Alison Doane of Harvard, Rebecca Kokinda, Steve Sumner and Andy Fernandez of SI's OFEO team. More are joining up as the work continues, including exhibition specialists, designers, educators, security staff, special events, development and administration officials.