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War Work

December 8, 2016

As 1941 neared its end, McDonald Observatory was riding high. It had been dedicated just two and a half years earlier, and its astronomers were making amazing discoveries with the world’s second-largest telescope.

But 75 years ago this week, things changed.

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan.

With the United States entering the war, there were brief concerns of an invasion through Mexico. So McDonald director Otto Struve considered removing the mirror from the big new telescope and burying it. But that plan was quickly dropped, so the telescope that now bears his name kept on working.

The working conditions weren’t easy, though. Many of the observatory’s astronomers and much of its support staff joined the war effort. Rationing made it hard to keep the facilities going, and even to travel to town to get supplies.

Yet Struve and a few others managed to keep on looking at the stars, although many of their observations weren’t analyzed until after the war. And some astronomers who were serving in the war made it back to West Texas when they could. During one of those breaks, Gerard Kuiper discovered the atmosphere of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

So McDonald stayed busy — and its telescope stayed intact — throughout the war.

More about astronomy and the war tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield


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