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Thirty Meter Telescope

The Project Manager’s Corner: Our Owners Meet
Gary Sanders, TMT Project Manager

July 2006

A great telescope captures the public mind. When I travel and meet a stranger on an airplane and tell them what I am working on, the almost invariable reaction is fascination. To look into the farthest and oldest reaches of the Universe, to spy on the birth and death of stars, to uncover a hint of a planet around a distant sun, is high romance and wonder. And to design and build the giant instrument that makes this possible is an adventure in itself.

Telescopes have been built by private initiative. They have also been built by public funding. These initiatives have been stimulated by high public interest and wonder. The public owns the telescope through its excitement. A great telescope is a public trust.

In 1604, a new star appeared in the sky and it was an exciting public event. Four years later, the world’s first telescopes were built by hand by Lipperhey and then by Galileo, and were financed by these builders themselves. Galileo pointed his telescopes at the heavens and made great discoveries. He named celestial objects after potential benefactors and presented them with the named discoveries and the actual telescopes. These were sly fundraising gifts. This strategy led to patronage and more telescopes. Note that these benefactors were people like Cosimo II, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Galileo’s “private” benefactors were nobility and royalty. This began a tradition in Europe of noble patronage of telescopes.

The 1844 Great Refractor installed at Harvard was funded by the citizens of Boston, who raised the necessary funds. They were excited by the appearance of a bright comet in the 1830’s. This was genuine private fundraising. This marks the beginning of a tradition in the United States of private support of astronomy.

The telescopes of the United States were long supported by private sources and then owned by universities or privately endowed observatories. The astronomers who gained access to these telescopes were members of these elite private institutions. They felt and acted as though they were the owners of the telescopes. The 100-inch Hooker telescope on Mount Wilson, finished in 1917, was funded by its namesake, John D. Hooker, and the Rockefeller Foundation, and operated by the Carnegie Observatories (with later additional private support by Caltech). The 100-inch reigned supreme in astronomy until the 1948 arrival of the 200-inch (5-meter) Mount Palomar telescope, also funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and operated by Caltech. The reign of Palomar gave way to the first 10-meter Keck telescope in 1992, funded by the Keck Foundation and operated by Caltech and the University of California (UC). There are many other such examples. The private tradition has thrived in the US.

In Europe, the tradition of royal support of astronomy became government support and, in recent decades, has endowed many European observatories, notably the telescopes of the European Southern Observatory in Chile. Government support of astronomy in the U.S. emerged only in 1957 with arrival of the US National Science Foundation to astronomy. By creating Kitt Peak National Observatory (which later became part of today’s National Optical Astronomy Observatory), telescopes were constructed for a broader community of astronomers funded by government resources.

When the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released its 2001 decadal survey of astronomy for the next decade, its highest priority ground-based initiative was described as a 30 meter-class telescope with half of its funding from public and half from private or international sources. This recommendation explicitly called for uniting the two previously disparate traditions in the United States. Motivated by the scale of such a project, it is a new model of sponsorship, ownership and science exploitation.

It was with all of this in mind that I looked around me at a meeting of the TMT Board of Directors on July 6. TMT formed in 2003 when its two privately supported astronomy partners, Caltech and UC*, made agreements with a new public partner, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), which operates the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. They also made an agreement with the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), representing an international partner. This united the patronage of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, supporting Caltech and UC, with the U.S. National Science Foundation supporting AURA, and Canadian governments, national and provincial, supporting ACURA.

This July 6 quarterly meeting considered many issues such as site selection, recommendations from the recent Conceptual Design Review, deliberations by the Science Advisory Committee on science and instrumentation priorities, and emerging cost and schedule planning. The members of the Board number 12, three from each partner. They include the Provost of the University of California, the Vice Provost of Caltech, the President of AURA, the Directors of the Gemini Observatory, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the University of California Observatories (including Lick Observatory), and the Hertzberg Institute of Astrophysics, and a number of senior astronomers and university administrators. Like any Board of Directors they sit and act as the owners. Their mandate flows from the institutional commitments that they are carrying out (thus the Provosts and Presidents on the Board) and the astronomy constituencies that they serve (thus the observatory directors). They act as owners, but they are surrogates for fiduciary owners and the astronomy owners.

And they are surrogates for the excited public who, as in the early 1600’s and the 1830’s, owned the excitement that spurred on royalty and industrial barons alike, and the intermediary astronomers who sat on mountain tops at night and brought the excitement down to Earth. The people who own the excitement own the telescopes. That is the public trust.

*Note: Although the University of California is a state-supported public university, it plans to raise the bulk of its contribution to TMT from private sources.

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The TMT project is a collaboration of Caltech, University of California (UC) and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA). © Thirty Meter Telescope


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