mountain profile Institute for Astronomy University of Hawaii

Mauna Kea becomes an International Site

Maintained by CGWW

The British had early on expressed an interest in testing Mauna Kea for an ambitious project known as the Northern Hemisphere Observatory – a program comprising a number of telescopes up to a 4-meter. They tested the mountain for several months but in the end decided to go to the Canaries – though as it turned out the NHO was never built, at least as originally conceived. Several other US institutions also looked at the mountain, but for one reason or another they decided to go elsewhere. The internationalization of Mauna Kea really began with the determination of the French CNRS (National Council for Scientific Research) to place their national telescope there.

In 1970 I spent three months in Paris on sabbatical leave. I had an office at Meudon and saw a good deal of two old friends, Graham Odgers and Roger Cayrel, who were working together (Graham on leave from Canada) on plans for a French telescope that was to be the premier instrument for French astronomy. This project had been underway for several years and the design concept was well advanced. However they had not yet settled on a site. As the years went by the search spread in ever-widening circles, and by 1970 it had reached as far afield as Baja California, where the Mexicans were creating a National Observatory south of Ensenada in wild country. I strongly urged Roger to look at Mauna Kea for the new French telescope, since if they were reaching as far afield as Mexico travel from France must no longer be a major consideration.

In December 1971, now back in Honolulu and starting finally to do some solar physics, I received a long message from France (via our then-new telex machine) that a deputation of three people (Fehrenbach, Wlerick, and Delhaye) wanted to visit Mauna Kea to assess it as a potential site for the French national telescope. I was surprised since I had understood that they had decided on Baja California and were in advanced discussions with the Mexicans about an operating agreement. I had also heard that they were in talks with JILA for a three-way proposal – evidently presuming US support. I responded eagerly, welcoming them, and in due course they all arrived, somewhat bemused to be in this remote paradise - but soon warmed by its charm. I took them up the mountain, showed them what was there, shared our site evaluation data, and indicated our hopes for the future - including the long-delayed infrastructure improvements! They seemed suitably impressed and went on their way to Flagstaff to review the quality of the Planetary Patrol images that had been obtained on Mauna Kea and to ask the Lowell staff about working on the mountain - and, no doubt, with us. They must have been satisfied since a few days later, to my delight (and admiration at their ability to act so quickly), I learned that they had decided on Mauna Kea as the site of the new French telescope - assuming that were to be acceptable to the State and University. The representatives of the French interests wished to return to Honolulu in early January (of 1972), and they asked me to set up meetings with the appropriate people. I was ecstatic as I told UH President Cleveland - who immediately relayed it to Governor Burns who was of course enthusiastic.

However the French did not have enough funding to complete the project and with the site now settled they wanted to try for a cooperative program with the US. They asked me to set up meetings in Washington with NSF and NASA, and Jean Delhaye, Pierre Charvin and I met with each agency but we got nowhere. I was disappointed of course but not really surprised. The office responsible for stellar/galactic astronomy in NASA had a long-standing policy of not supporting ground-based work, while the astronomy section at NSF showed no interest and had little flexibility in any case.