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Astronomy in Hawaii
John T. Jefferies spacer

Maintained by W-W


Following statehood in 1959, the desire for change from the old ways of Hawaii was widespread, and John Burns, as the new Governor, was its incarnation and powerful advocate. He believed that a strong University could become a major factor in shaping a new future for the State, and had found a leader after his own heart in Thomas Hamilton, whom he saw appointed to the University presidency. Hamilton had the ablest of lieutenants for the new order in his academic Vice President, Bob Hiatt, a seasoned Hawaii hand whose forceful leadership and vision had underlain much of the planning and progress that had already taken place. A major focus was to be in oceanography and geophysics; this was a natural emphasis and well before Hamilton's arrival it had been translated, under Hiatt's aegis, into a successful appeal to the federal government for the creation of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics (HIG).  Important among the small group whose enterprise underlay this success was Walter Steiger, whose particular interest was to build a solar observatory on Haleakala as a component of the new initiative. He was a member of the Physics Department who had arrived in the Islands soon after the Second World War Steiger made an important contribution to the global monitoring of the sun through observations in this largely uncovered longitude, though his personal research interests were in night-sky radiation.

In 1963 Steiger's vision was realized in the completion of the Solar Observatory in the summit area of Haleakala - this facility was named in honor of C.E.K.Mees, the Kodak scientist and early advocate of the importance of Hawaii's high mountains for astronomy. Attempts to recruit someone to lead a research program to capitalize on the promise of this investment had met with no success - most senior people in the field felt that to go there would be to bury one's career. A partial solution had been found through the initiative of Dick Hansen, of Boulder's High Altitude Observatory (HAO). Dick, who had good personal relations with Steiger, had seen in Haleakala a surpassing site for locating the highly sensitive coronal photometer that HAO had recently completed. Working with Steiger, Dick had helped secure funding from the National Science Foundation for an instrumentation platform in the Mees Observatory that would accommodate the HAO instrument - and provide for other specialized instrumentation that the University would want to install when it was able to mount its own program.

Following a trip to Australia in November 1963 I stopped in Hawaii to visit Dick - whom I had known well in Boulder. Through his industry a working solar observatory was beginning to take shape on Haleakala's high, remote, and barren landscape of old lava flows and volcanic detritus - though it still lacked any local leadership. Dick (who understood my affinity for the Pacific Islands) had been urging me for some time to consider a position at the University of Hawaii and had arranged for Walt Steiger to meet me on arrival and to introduce me to the University administration. Walt took me to see George Woollard (the new HIG Director) and Bob Hiatt, and I could not help being impressed at their dynamic spirit and enthusiasm - which certainly did not match my preconceptions of the University. They made it clear that they would welcome an interest on my part, but I was only there to talk to them about the potential of Haleakala for solar physics - my sole reason for stopping over in Honolulu had been to see Dick Hansen. Despite the decidedly romantic appeal, it made no sense for me to leave Boulder. I was a senior member of the newly formed Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA) in whose foundation I had played a significant role and to whose objectives I was as firmly committed as I was to working for its success.

But the visit had its impact, and the thought of Hawaii persisted. I had had an innate sympathy for Polynesia tracing uninterruptedly back to my early childhood. Perhaps it was this that worked its magic; perhaps it was an inborn genetic inheritance from ancestors who plunged into the unknown of an early Australia: more immediately it may have been the influence of two visits to Tahiti in 1962 and 1964. Whatever the reason, I softened to the idea and decided to look further into the possibilities in Hawaii and, eventually, to accept an appointment there.

I discussed the possibility with two old friends and suggested they join in this venture. Jack Zirker and Frank Orrall were on the staff at the Sacramento Peak Observatory, and their lives, with those of their families, had been intertwined with ours since the first days of our arrival in the US in 1956. They both agreed to come, at least for a trial period of a year - I had arranged a similar lifeline. I had earlier arranged for Marie McCabe to spend a year at Sacramento Peak on leave from Ron Giovanelli's program at CSIRO in Sydney (my old workplace), but she was happy enough to switch her nominal one-year visit to Hawaii - where at this writing she remains!

Hearing of our plans, Henry Smith of the solar office in NASA arranged to meet me, during a trip he was making to Boulder, to discuss how NASA could help, and with his support we obtained funding to begin the program.

My family's reaction to the idea was less than enthusiastic. My wife, Charmian had recently begun work as a computer programmer at the newly formed National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and was not at all thrilled at the thought of once again making a new life in a new land with all the disruption that that would entail. However, she, too, became reconciled to the adventure (it was at least warm in Hawaii), and with our three young children, also reluctant to leave friends behind, and my mother ,who was visiting us from Australia, we set out one August day in 1964 for a new life in the Islands.