03 June 2011

Time to Visit the Arecibo Observatory

Welcome back.

Flash! Flying isn’t fun anymore. But even if you object to knee melding with a seat back and haven’t checked this hour’s regulations on the color of bags, you’ve got to admit that flying normally gets you to the advertised destination, generally with your bags. 

My flying has always been work related or to visit in-laws in Wisconsin. Several years ago, however, we dared to be different. We flew to Puerto Rico for an absolutely ideal vacation. I’ll save that for a future blog post.

Flying to Puerto Rico was re-living one of my earliest flight experiences. That flight took me to a fantasy summer at the Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest radar-radio telescope (www.naic.edu). The facility was operated by Cornell, as it still is, and it was then called the Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory or simply AIO.

The Arecibo Observatory,1965 (left) and 2004.


Arriving at the San Juan Airport today is no different from arriving at any modern, efficient, get-you-in and get-you-out airport, with souvenirs, food and drink. 

On my first visit, however, I dodged animated family reunions at every step; individuals advertising transportation in Spanish, English or both, or something in between; others holding signs hand-printed with passengers’ names; and lines of parked and double-parked private cars and for-hire publicos, which were then sedans not vans.  

My sign holder was Ed Hunt, who was head of maintenance at AIO, on leave from MIT Lincoln Lab.

As we drove along the coastal highway to Ed’s home in Arecibo, he told me about himself, what I’d be doing and what I was seeing in the twilight--sugarcane, pineapple, drivers sticking their arm out the window and flapping their hand for every contingency. (Today, drivers use the vehicle’s turn signal, which is almost as effective.) 

In the morning, I held on as Ed casually negotiated the 11 mile drive from Arecibo to AIO over the winding, nominally two-lane road, blowing the car horn at every blind curve, narrowly missing uncounted chickens and dogs, but only one horse.

Karst limestone topography
 surrounds and holds
 the Arecibo Observatory.


That first day on site, I moved into the visitors’ quarters and met most of the staff, engineers and scientists, including my new roommate, a visitor from Italy. 

I toured the site with a member of the maintenance staff, riding an old Air Force jeep to the towers and to the enormous, bowl-shaped reflector--1,000 feet across, wider than a football field.

One of AIO’s three towers, 1965.

Driving around and under the original AIO reflector.

To reach the 525 ton steel platform, suspended 435 feet above the reflector, we took advantage of the cable car, rather than the catwalk.

Ed Hunt and staff on the AIO platform.
The AIO operations building viewed 
from the platform. Note 
the catwalk on upper right.

At nightfall, I left my roommate and other visitors in the cafeteria and walked to the parking lot - observation area in front of the operations building. Looking at the platform and reflector, listening to the coquis (tree frogs), feeling the warm trade wind, I knew my life could never be more exceptional.
A view from directly below
 the AIO platform, 1965.

Blank Filler

Construction of AIO was completed two years before my first visit. Comparing the 1965 and 2004 photographs, you can’t miss the new dome-shaped antenna. The platform is now heavier and higher (www.naic.edu).

The reflector surface, which is now thousands of perforated aluminum panels, used to be wire mesh. If workers had to be on the original surface, they wore water skis and made sure the skis spanned the supporting cables to avoid bending the mesh. 
Warren wearing water skis on 
AIO's original wire-mesh reflector

Wrap Up

To add frosting to my fantasy summer cake, as I was settling into my seat for the return flight to New York, the attendant asked if I would like to move forward to first class where there were empty seats. I wonder if that still happens.

Thanks for stopping by. I’ll write again in about a week.

Instead of the guard dogs we had, today
you’ll find a top-notch visitors’ center.

This post was a change of pace from earlier posts. I hope you got this far and that you found it interesting. Any feedback would be appreciated. 

For a look at AIO, you might rent, borrow or buy the movie “Contact” or “GoldenEye.”

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