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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 265-291

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What Makes a Failure?
Designing a New National Telescope, 1975-1984

W. Patrick McCray


For an expert community, choosing the design of a new technology is not as simple as running a cost-benefit analysis on the available options. During the decision-making process, members of the communities involved learn what is feasible, educate each other, and articulate their priorities as they move toward a solution. 1 Historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and policy makers have begun to produce a body of literature that investigates the process and motives at work when a scientific or technological community wrestles with an important project's early stages. During the 1970s and 1980s, American astronomers, engineers, and science administrators formed such a decision-making community as they debated the design and use of larger telescopes, including a new national telescope. They balanced science goals against technological possibilities and they weighed the intellectual well-being of the entire astronomy community against the desires of individuals and institutions. In the end, they made perhaps the toughest choice of all: not to build. Did that decision signal [End Page 265] failure? A closer look suggests otherwise, that the ultimate success or failure of a big technological project must be judged on more than whether or not it is ever actually built.

Ever since astronomers began to use telescopes they have wished for bigger instruments. A bigger telescope collects more light, enabling an astronomer to observe fainter, more distant, and older celestial objects. A larger telescope also collects light more efficiently, and, in the context of modern astronomy, that means that more astronomers can have access to the instrument and do their research more quickly. Throughout the twentieth century, scientists and engineers proposed novel designs for telescopes with increased light-collecting power. Choosing a design and implementing it, however, demands the proper combination of community interest, technological capability, institutional support, and financial resources. In the late 1970s and early 1980s a confluence of factors--scientific, technical, and social--led astronomers and engineers to develop detailed plans for very large telescopes, much larger than any built before. Popular astronomy magazines regularly described them as "monster telescopes" or "new giant eyes." 2 The funding climate of American astronomy, the perceived need for a new national telescope, the recognized technological limitations of previous large telescopes, and the research agendas of American astronomers all fueled a fundamental transformation in the way that new large telescopes were designed and built.

By about 1975, the community of people who relied on large telescopes for their work was in crisis. 3 The traditional model for such instruments, based on the famous 200-inch Hale telescope on California's Palomar Mountain, could no longer accommodate the financial constraints on and research expectations of U.S. astronomers. 4 At the same time, the nation's [End Page 266] large telescopes were increasingly oversubscribed; simply observing faint objects for longer times was not feasible logistically. This was true especially at the national centers, where requests for observing time typically outnumbered nights available by more than three to one. 5 Astronomers and engineers reevaluated their telescope design concepts because of the limitations of traditional technology and their understanding of what new designs offered in terms of performance and scientific capabilities.

Over the next decade, astronomers competed fiercely to have their designs adopted and funded. One monster telescope under consideration in the 1980s was the National New Technology Telescope (NNTT), first proposed by astronomers and engineers at Kitt Peak National Observatory, headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. The NNTT was to be an innovative new telescope that would be available to all astronomers. It would have a collecting area of 15 meters, five times larger than the Hale telescope, the biggest telescope in the United States at that time, and more than twenty-five times that of the planned Hubble Space Telescope. Between 1980 and 1984 the astronomy community considered two different design concepts for this telescope. In 1984 a national panel of astronomers selected a design after months of...


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