Press Release

New Book Recounts Exciting, Colorful History of Radio Astronomy in Green Bank, West Virginia

By SpaceRef Editor
July 23, 2007
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A new book published by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) tells the story of the founding and early years of the Observatory at Green Bank, West Virginia. “But it was Fun: the first forty years of radio astronomy at Green Bank,”  is not a formal history, but rather a scrapbook of early memos, recollections, anecdotes and reports. “But it was Fun…” is liberally illustrated with archival photographs.  It includes historical and scientific papers from symposia held in 1987 and 1995 to celebrate the birthdays of two of the radio telescopes at the Observatory.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory was formed in 1956 after the National Science Foundation decided to establish an observatory in the eastern United States for the study of faint radio signals from distant objects in the Universe.  “But it was Fun…” reprints early memos from the group of scientists who searched the mountains for a suitable site — an area free from radio transmitters and other sources of radio interference — “in a valley surrounded by as many ranges of high mountains in as many directions as possible,” which was “at least 50 miles distant from any city or other concentration of people.”  The committee settled on Green Bank, a small village in West Virginia, and the book documents the struggles that followed to create a world-class scientific facility in an isolated area more accustomed to cows than computers.

Groundbreaking at the Observatory, then a patchwork of farms and fields, took place in October 1957, only a few days after the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union. A year later, Green Bank’s first telescope was dedicated, and the book contains a transcription of speeches given at that ceremony, when the Cold War, the space race and America’s scientific stature were issues of the hour.

The centerpiece of the new Observatory was to be a highly-precise radio telescope 140 feet in diameter, but it was expected that it would soon be surpassed by dishes of much greater size.  The book reprints internal memos, reports, and recollections of astronomers who were there, as the initial elation turned to frustration when the 140 Foot Telescope project became mired in technical difficulties, plans for larger dishes were put on hold, and the scientific staff of the fledgling Observatory struggled to create a National Observatory with inadequate equipment in a very remote location.

Articles by David Heeschen and John Findlay tell the story of the creation of the 300 Foot Telescope, at that time the largest in the world, which went from initial concept to full operation in only 23 months, and began a rich life of research that put the NRAO on the world scientific map.  The 300 Foot Telescope was originally intended to be an interim instrument, but as documented in the book, demand for its use was so high that it was kept in operation long after its initial planned retirement, with regular upgrades and new generations of electronics.

The sudden collapse of the 300 Foot Telescope on a calm evening after 26 years of operation shocked the astronomical community.  “But it was Fun…” features dramatic first-hand accounts by the people who were there that night: the telescope operator who found himself under a falling structure; the Observatory staff who at first could not believe what happened, and those who worked during the night and into the next day to secure the area, preserve information on what happened, and deal with the rush of publicity.  The book includes extensive photographs and the Executive Summary Report of the panel which was commissioned to investigate the collapse and its implication for the design of other large radio telescopes.

“But it was Fun…”  will appeal to a variety of audiences. Historians of science will be interested in the articles by David Heeschen, Gerald Tape, and Hugh van Horn, on the evolution of the concept of a National Observatory, and the difficulties of putting the concepts into practice in Green Bank.  Those interested in astronomical discovery will find fascinating and highly personal accounts by Peter Mezger on observations of radio recombination lines, by Lewis Snyder and Barry Turner on the early days of astrochemistry, by Don Backer and David Nice on observations of pulsars, and by David Shaffer, James Moran, Ken Kellermann and Barry Clark on aspects of the development of long baseline interferometric techniques.

Today’s generation of scientists will find interesting reminiscences by Patrick Palmer, Thomas Wilson, and Nobel Laureate Joseph Taylor on their experiences as graduate students doing thesis research at Green Bank, and from Sebastian von Hoerner and Jaap Baars on their work in telescope development.  The volume also relates the entry of computers into radio astronomy, and reprints the one-page memo from 1960 which laid out the protocol for use of the new “single roll of magnetic tape” just acquired by the Observatory.

A major portion of the book describes some singular events associated with this singular place: the first search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations — Project Ozma — conducted by Dr. Frank Drake in 1960. “But it was Fun…” documents how this routine project thrust the NRAO into the national spotlight to the discomfort of its director, a distinguished astronomer of the old school.  The book also recounts a few episodes in the amazing life of Grote Reber, the engineer who built the first-ever radio dish in his backyard and was a regular visitor to Green Bank.

The NRAO Green Bank Observatory is an international center for research, and in two unique and frequently hilarious articles, Ken Kellermann and Barry Clark tell their stories of the first cooperative radio astronomical projects between the Soviet Union and the U.S., which involved transporting an atomic clock from Green Bank to a Soviet Observatory on the Black Sea at a time when international tensions were high, and it was impossible to make a phone call from the USSR to Green Bank.

“But it was Fun…” includes a historical introduction which summarizes the early development of radio astronomy and events at the NRAO in Green Bank, a list of science highlights from the 300 Foot and 140 Foot Telescope research programs, chronologies of technical developments and lists of the early users.  “But it was Fun: the first 40 years of radio astronomy at Green Bank” is a unique book which offers insight on the workings of a major scientific institution and the “overabundance of interesting people” who have populated it.

The book is available from the NRAO. For information on ordering, see:

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.   

SpaceRef staff editor.