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McDonald at 75, III

May 7, 2014

Modern science is all about collaborations. Many projects are so big and expensive that you need a lot of partners to make them happen. The largest telescope at McDonald Observatory, for example, is a collaboration of several universities in the United States and Germany. And McDonald is partnering with other groups to build an even bigger telescope in Chile.

In fact, McDonald was the first major observatory to be built by a collaboration.

The University of Texas received a bequest to establish the observatory. But it had no astronomy department to operate a telescope, so it decided to wait a while. On the other hand, the University of Chicago had a thriving astronomy department but it was in dire need of a big new telescope for its researchers.

So Texas President Harry Benedict and Otto Struve, the director of Chicago’s astronomy program, worked out a deal. Texas would build McDonald Observatory, and Chicago would operate it. The universities signed a 30-year deal in 1932.

Struve then set about building the observatory. He picked a site near Fort Davis, Texas, and contracted with Warner and Swasey of Cleveland to build the observatory’s first big telescope. He sent researchers with small telescopes to start using the site well before the facilities were complete. And when McDonald was dedicated 75 years ago this week, Struve had laid out its research program — an extensive study of the stars. More about that tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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