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A New Start

September 3, 2013

Harlan Smith was a 38-year-old astronomer at Yale when he got a tantalizing offer: The University of Texas asked him to become the first Texas-hired director of McDonald Observatory. The University had owned the Observatory since its beginning in the 1930s, but had contracted with the University of Chicago to run it. When the deal expired, in 1962, the place was run down, and its big 82-inch telescope needed a lot of work. What’s more, Texas had no astronomy program to speak of on its Austin campus.

Smith saw the potential, though, so he agreed to take the job — but only if the University met a few conditions. Smith recalled those points decades later:

SMITH: I told the University that we should be allowed to build up to at least 12 full-time faculty members, that we should be given substantial University funds to refurbish the 82-inch, that we should have support in building a substantially larger telescope, we should be allowed to begin radio astronomy, and that we should be supported in moving into space astronomy as that became practicable. Well, there was never a written answer to these written conditions, if you will, but there was a phone call that said 'Yeah, we'll take it, come on.' So I came.

Smith started the job 50 years ago this week. He was director of McDonald Observatory and chairman of the University’s new Department of Astronomy. Within a few years, McDonald had refurbished the old telescope and built a new one that was even bigger. And the department became one of the largest in the world.

Harlan Smith retired from McDonald in 1989. Later, the telescope he built in the 1960s was renamed in his honor — continuing his legacy well into the 21st century.

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


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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