What Happens When a Space Observatory Goes Rogue
Almost everyone at the radio astronomy center in Green Bank, West Virginia, is wearing a hat indoors on October 4. There are ancient guard hats, hard hats with outdated logos, decades-old National Radio Astronomy Observatory Fire Department hats, ballcaps long discontinued from the gift shop, and straight-up tinfoil.
Sue Shears, an administrator for the electronics division, wears an auld lang syne-style chapeau. You know: metallic green, gold band. “It’s a new year,” she says.
And that’s kind of true. For the past 60 years, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory has been Green Bank’s parent organization. But it recently booted Green Bank out, after a 2012 announcement recommending that the National Science Foundation defund the center by October 1, 2016. “As of this past weekend, we shouldn’t be here,” says Mike Holstine, Green Bank’s business manager. He gestures around his office, where his 1950s observatory security hat sits on a shelf and the view through the window shows telescopes standing in fields. We’re still around.
Green Bank has survived the cutoff by asserting its independence. On October 1, its scientists broke away and formed their own rogue organization: the solo Green Bank Observatory. Thus the hats, which are part of a celebratory Spirit Week: Monday is oldest NRAO T-shirt day, Tuesday is astro hat day, and Wednesday is ice-cream social day. On Thursday, employees will don green and purple, the colors of their new logo, which stand in contrast to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s staid navy-and-white. On Saturday, October 8, the Green Bank Observatory gets its official christening.
In making a new observatory out of an old one—“same people, cooler logo,” as a promotional video says—Green Bank has helped pave the path for other federal scientific facilities that the government will later leave behind. And they will be left behind. The National Science Foundation’s overall budget has been fairly flat since 2011, while the costs of scientific business have only increased. Besides, all government funding relies on Congressional appropriations, and their idea of good science doesn’t always match up with that of scientists themselves. By negotiating a unique financing deal with the NSF that allows them to search out private financing, they’ve found a way to keep running—and doing the science that the government won’t always get behind.
Astronomical Attitude Adjustment
When the National Science Foundation first laid out its plans to divest from Green Bank, I was working for the center’s education division. After the funding-bomb announcement—at an all-hands meeting in the auditorium—chattering in the hallway stopped. Cafeteria tables went quiet. People did what work they were supposed to and not much more. I left the observatory for a job at Astronomy magazine just a few months later.
The breakup hit people hard, partly because NRAO was founded right here in Green Bank in 1956. Its newest instrument, the Green Bank Telescope, was finished in 2001 and could hold two football fields if you really wanted it to. For a long time, NRAO was synonymous with Green Bank. Then, it opened three other observatories and a headquarters.
The observatory was flush enough to run all of these facilities for a while. But in 2012, a committee recommended that the NSF cut ties with Green Bank. They needed to use their limited budget to build and turn on new telescopes and preserve grant money for scientists, not run older observatories. The NSF agreed, and high-ups decided NRAO and Green Bank needed to separate.
At first, the staff felt shock, betrayal. Tracy Samples, the director of human resources, says people’s emotions followed the same pattern they do when human relationships end. The sundry how-could-yous. The grief.
But then you get up, shake off, and make resolutions. “We realized we had to figure out how to keep this place alive,” says Samples. “It was a feeling like this: OK, if you don’t want me, then by God I’m going to date other people, and they’re going to love me more than you ever did.”
Green Bank employees scrambled to find a way to move forward. “Really, the only path out was to do something never done before,” says Karen O’Neil, the site director. So they petitioned to retain a fraction of NSF funding and make up the difference with private contracts—a model then unheard of. Eventually, the NSF agreed to fund about 60 percent of Green Bank’s operations in 2017, tapering to 30 percent in 2018.
To add cash flow to that federal tributary, Green Bankers had to nail down private contracts. The 140-foot telescope, home to the biggest ball bearing in the world, will download data from the Russian Space Agency’s on-orbit radio telescope, RadioAstron, which will also hook up with the newer telescope to form a high-resolution array. The North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves has commissioned the flagship Green Bank Telescope to watch their network of pulsars for fingerprints of gravitational waves.
And Breakthrough Listen—a search for extraterrestrial intelligence—will look for the technological fingerprints of aliens. The project, funded by rich-guy Yuri Milner, will watch the sky 1,300 hours a year, debiting $2 million from Milner annually and depositing it into Green Bank’s coffers.
Those coffers animate the telescopes, sure, but they also animate the community. And while “community” isn’t a reason for a federal organization to keep an observatory open, it is a reason for the observatory itself to fight for its livelihood.
The town—pop 143—doesn’t exactly sit in a circus of industry. Pocahontas County, West Virginia, is mostly national forest. There isn’t cell phone service or wi-fi—by federal decree, to protect the telescope and a former ECHELON listening station. People rely on each other because the outside world just isn’t around. And perhaps that’s how they bypassed the “acceptance” stage of grief to focus on what came next: the pivot, the rebrand, the hustle.
And it will be a hustle. The contracts Green Bank has so far will hold them for the next couple of years. But they’ll need more money, again and again. That’s still a fight, but the tactics have changed. “I feel like we’re all throwing grenades in the same direction now, not at each other,” says Samples.
As she says this (while wearing a woven hat with a printout of the new logo pinned to the front), I watch employees out her office window redo some signage. They place boards over the gold letters of “National Radio Astronomy Observatory” on the visitors’ building, leaving only “Green Bank Science Center.”
Some guys are also painting over the welcome sign by the highway. “NRAO” fades away, and the sign becomes a blank slate, onto which someone will later plaster the Green Bank Observatory logo.
Slouching Toward Series A
No one knows whether public-private freelancing is a viable long-term strategy, or if that cloud over employees’ heads will starting pouring forth water and lightning.
People are always heralding The Next Great Funding Model for science. Government cuts? Try Kickstarter! Private prizes! Fickle philanthropists! Taking money from corporations with a priori ideas about your conclusions! So far, not enough time has passed for any to have stood its test.
The gig model is the same one other cut-off telescopes, like some at Mount Wilson, have adopted. But Green Bank is the first federal observatory to retain some basic science funds from the NSF and take private money. The site will just have to keep hustling—the government and potential paying customers—and see whether the demand for their telescopes stays high enough to warrant the existing supply. If it works, other federal cast-offs could follow their example, since the red tape’s already snipped.
But regardless of what will happen, Green Bankers are excited.
“Could we have become what we are now without a divestiture recommendation?” asks O’Neil. It’s a rhetorical question. She’s a scientist, and does not believe in forecasting alternate realities. But probably no.
Adversity isn’t always so adverse. Breakups aren’t that bad. People bounce back, photons hitting an antenna, quicker than they thought they would. They get some new interests, make some new partnerships, and stop seeing themselves as half of something bigger. They put on new hats and throw themselves a party.
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