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A Tale of Two Telescopes: Arecibo and Robert Byrd GBT

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in Green Bank, West Virginia, has a lot in common with the telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Until recently, Arecibo had the world’s largest radio telescope. GBT is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. Both telescopes have been used in history-making research on pulsars and for listening for possible signals from extraterrestrial sources. Both telescopes have had important educational roles, providing opportunities and inspiration for thousands of students and young scientists. And both collapsed and became unusable.

The GBT collapsed unexpectedly in November, 1988. Just days after the 32nd anniversary of that collapse, the telescope at Arecibo went down. Both were unusable and incapable of being repaired. George Seielstad, the director of GBT at that time, told, “There was no hope.”

The global scientific community and the community in Arecibo feel that way now.

Hope for GBT

There actually was hope for the Green Bank Telescope, in the form of two senators. Like every state, West Virginia has two representatives in the U.S. Senate. In 1988, the senators representing West Virginia were Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).

They saw the scientific importance of the telescope. They also saw the economic importance. Just as Arecibo’s economy centers around the observatory, Green Bank depended on its telescope. Like Arecibo, Green Bank got a boost from tourism and from the activity at the observatory.

West Virginia was one of the poorest states at the time, and infusions of cash from outside the state like those brought in by the telescope were very important. West Virginia had a 22% poverty rate, compared with a national poverty rate of 14%, and needed every revenue stream it could command. Yet the cost of replacing the telescope was far beyond the state’s budget.

“We were lucky,” Seielstad said in the interview. “We had two well-placed, powerful senators who sensed the loss to the state and I think to the nation.”

His colleague Paul Vanden Bout reflected on the position of Puerto Rico after the collapse of the Arecibo Telescope began. “Politically, they don’t have that much clout, and so it makes it difficult,” he told

Political clout

The National Science Foundation had no intention of rebuilding the telescope, but Senator Byrd wrote $75,000,000 for the rebuilding into the 1989 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill.

Byrd was the Senate Majority Leader at the time. He was about to become the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and ended up the longest-serving Member of Congress. His influence was enormous, and he was known for directing billions of dollars toward projects that helped West Virginia.

Time-lapse: Construction of the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, Feb. 1993 – Jul. 2000 from NRAO Outreach on Vimeo.

In spite of great controversy and after giving up on adding the funding to the National Science Foundation’s budget, Byrd described the collapse of the telescope as a “calamity” and fitted the funding into the emergency appropriations bill.

Green Bank got a new telescope and has continued to do important work in astronomy and physics. The observatory contributes $29.76 million to the local economy each year.

The future of Arecibo

The telescope at Arecibo was built in a natural karst sinkhole which provided natural support for the telescope. This makes Arecibo an ideal — and relatively cost-effective — location for an enormous telescope dish.

The observatory is not being closed and the National Science Foundation says it is “very early” to discuss the possibility of a replacement telescope.

However, Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, not a state. As a territory, Puerto Rico has no senators. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, the Resident Commissioner, cannot vote in any congressional vote in which she would make a difference. Congress has the legal right under the constitution to treat territories differently from States, which must be treated equally. Puerto Rico has, in short, very little political clout.

Gonzalez-Colon is asking for a Congressional hearing on the observatory. In a letter  to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, she wrote, “Considering the significance of this structure and the role it played on matters of national security, science, technology, engineering, and STEM education, I respectfully request a public hearing that will assist with acquiring a better understanding of the events leading to the collapse, efforts to clean the site, and next steps for the facility.”

The Resident Commissioner will have no help from any colleagues in the Senate, where Puerto Rico has no representation.

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