I am by no means an activist. Sure, there are issues that I strongly believe in. One of the entire purposes behind Arrowhead Freelance and Publishing is to promote literacy and support emerging local authors. Things like that I can get behind. But I’m not a sign holder, I’m not a person who is going to camp outside to prove a point. If there is something I want to change, I will try my best to change it using the means at my disposal. Sometimes, however, an issue is too big for yourself. That’s when you need help.
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory has called Green Bank, West Virginia one of its homes for longer than I can remember. It is one of the few places in the United States that is Radio Quiet. Right now I have no cell service, and I’m writing this article to publish tonight, when I can turn on the Wi-Fi (which is ‘illegal.’ Not supposed to have it, and we could get in trouble for using it.) It’s more sensitive for my family than most. We live less than a mile from the Observatory. The radio receivers on the dishes are so sensitive that they can pick up the slightest electrical interference. I’ve been told by tour guides that the dish can even pick up the radio signals of tourist’s heartbeats as they gaze wonderously at the dish.
Situated in the middle of rural Pocahontas County, the Observatory is a paradox. It contains some of the most sophisticated and sensitive technology on earth, yet farmers driving decades old trucks drive past on a daily basis. Like the shield generator on Endor, Green Bank is a forested paradise that hides some of the most awe-inspiring human creations. The Green Bank Telescope is the largest fully steerable man-made structure on earth, and height wise it is taller than the Statue of Liberty. Needless to say, it is strangely out of place.
Despite its sophistication, however, the Green Bank Observatory is becoming increasingly obsolete in the minds of the National Radio Astronomy and Observatory (NRAO) and National Science Foundation. Other projects in other parts of the world have diverted vast sums of finance, and the NRAO has decided that the program to get the ax will be the Green Bank Observatory. It’s older, it’s harder to reach than the sites in Chile and New Mexico, and because it’s the largest man-made fully steerable object, it’s costly to upkeep.
Today, there is a community meeting where the future of the Green Bank Observatory will be decided. One of the most dreadful considerations is “returning the Green Bank Observatory to its original state,” which means the destruction of the scientific infrastructure that exists there.
Financially, it is hard to blame them. It costs millions to maintain the facility year round, between maintenance on the Radio Dishes, construction of the sensitive receivers, paying for liquid hydrogen and helium and nitrogen for cooling the devices. But the Observatory has a history. It was here that Frank Drake was made aware that he had received the Nobel Prize in Science for his theoretical work in astronomy and his development of the Drake Equation. It was here that many members of the small community worked their entire lives to support their family. For me, it’s where I first started working, spending my summers doing groundwork and maintenance. It’s a source of pride for the locals, something they point to when city-folk call them yokels. Most importantly, it’s a bastion of knowledge and pure scientific pursuit.
The saddest part about the uncertain future of the Observatory is not what it means for the community, but what it says about our society as a whole. It’s synonymous with the decision to end the Space Shuttle Program. Our nation used to be vitalized by the pursuit of knowledge, by the desire to push the envelope as we explored the Final Frontier. When John F. Kennedy laid the groundwork for NASA, the concern was putting a man on the moon, not the “cost.” And cost it did, becoming one of the costliest initiatives in all of American history. People shudder at the word “cost,” because we are too short-sighted to see the rewards.
Because of the Space Program we have laptops, cell phones, freeze dried ice cream, and pens that write upside down. Countless innovations came about because of the Space Race, things which we now take for granted. Things which are ignored because now we hear the “cost” of sending a shuttle into orbit. So we scrap the program to save money. Now the GBT faces the same face. It “costs” too much to maintain the facility. Never mind the insight into the universe it has provided.
To me, it is a travesty that we consider “cost” more important than reward. Cost is relative, and the knowledge we could gain is invaluable. Cost is fictitious, a human construct. The knowledge of the universe is there, waiting for us to explore, waiting to help us grow in our understanding of the cosmos. Can we truly live in a world where billions of dollars are spent on a political election, but we can’t find a couple of million to support the sciences?
Again, I’m not an activist, but this is important. Not just to me, but to you and to us all. Below is a link where you can share your opinion about the proposed future of the Green Bank Observatory. If you can help, that would be amazing. If you can share it with your friends, that would be even more amazing. We need to move past the “here and now,” and make investments for the future and knowledge of our species. Thank you in advance.