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Changing Directions

September 2, 2013

For its first three decades, McDonald Observatory was operated as a scientific partnership. The University of Texas provided the facilities, while the University of Chicago provided the astronomers.

Portrait of Harlan J. SmithHarlan J. Smith, the first Texas director of McDonald ObservatoryIt was an arrangement born of necessity. Texas received a bequest to build an observatory from William J. McDonald. The university didn’t have an astronomy program, though, so it contracted with Chicago, which needed new telescopes for its world-class research team.

The arrangement brought great scientific returns. Otto Struve, the Observatory’s first director, studied the stars, while Gerard Kuiper made important discoveries about Mars and the other worlds of the solar system. Other Chicago astronomers made equally important contributions.

In the early 1960s, though, the partnership was coming to an end. Years later, the first Texas-hired McDonald director, Harlan J. Smith, described the state of the place:

SMITH: The Observatory had been allowed to run very far down because Texas wouldn't put any more money into it and Chicago was afraid to, so things were getting pretty dusty and only four people were associated with the Observatory by 1963. Texas took a look at that and said, "My goodness, what are we going to do with this?"

The University decided to charge ahead with repairing and upgrading the Observatory. It hired Smith to head both the Observatory and a new Department of Astronomy on the Austin campus. Smith took over 50 years ago this week, ushering in the first true era of Texas astronomy. Over the next few years, he helped build the program into a scientific powerhouse.

We’ll have more about that tomorrow.

And McDonald Observatory is kicking off the celebration of its 75th anniversary this week. Details at


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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