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Mel Simmons, on the construction of the 61-inch telescope
I came in ’64 at the request of Dr. Kuiper, because the construction of what we call the 61-inch, later referred to as the 1.5-meter, had been stopped. The U of A had more billings than money available to complete the telescope. So the Comptroller’s Office stopped construction and said, “No more work until we see what’s going on.”
Kuiper called me, and I went in and took the job to see what was going on. I worked over in the Comptroller’s Office for about a month. I got a copy of the contract with Western Gear because that’s where the problem was, with the telescope itself. Not with the dome, but the telescope. I went over every invoice from the time it started to where they stopped it, and then I classified all the invoices paid or not paid, as well as what I thought were erroneous billings.
Anyway, I spent about a month going through all the invoices, and then I told Sherwood Carr who was the Comptroller at the time that I was going to call Western Gear, the contractor, and tell them I would like for them to send a man over to go over every invoice, one with the authority to void an invoice. I spent about three weeks with him, and he agreed with me, and okayed all the ones I said were okay and voided all the others.
Anyway, to make a long story short, we finished the construction. Kuiper had an optical professional from Scotland [Robert Waland] to grind the mirrors that was to be in the telescope. We made the mirror in the basement of the Space Science building. Probably the instruments used for the grinding are still in the basement. When Astronomy got in on it later in the years—because they wanted to put all the telescopes together—they referred to it as a 1.5-meter.
We had enough money left to do the dormitory. We went ahead and started construction, and because we didn’t go through Physical Resources they wouldn’t furnish anybody to look at the construction and see if it was being followed the way we had it outlined. So I used Arnold Evans, who was in charge of the observatory facilities, to check all the construction because I was down here and didn’t go up there that often.
He did a great job. We finished the construction of the dormitory; we still had a little bit of money left over. So I talked to the contractors that built these cabins, and he gave me enough—just gave it to me—enough redwood to cover the steps. The telescope was up above and the dormitory was down, behind it, on the North side. So we had to have steps, and in the wintertime those would be covered with snow, and a tired man observing was liable to slide all the way down. So we covered the steps with redwood and made it safe.
Later we built another telescope up there, a small one, for Dr. [Elizabeth] Roemer. Dr. Kuiper was spending most of his time trying different areas, testing them, and some of the areas he tested were Pikes Peak, Colorado, and Flagstaff. He went over to where the University now has telescopes on Mt. Graham, and he did a test there. As I remember, Dr. Kuiper felt there was a little bit too much moisture as far as he was concerned, so he dropped that.
But then he went to Hawaii, Mauna Kea. We took a 21-inch telescope over there, about halfway up the mountain, where he did a lot of testing. He talked NASA into building the telescope that’s there, through the University of Hawaii. He then tested the Mexico site for a telescope. We built a road to the top so he could test the site. He put a 21-inch telescope up there for testing; later on they had their telescope up there.
After Dr. Kuiper left, he still went on to do all this testing. We have the radar site that’s up on Mt. Lemmon itself. It was owned by the Forest Service. But the military had it as a radar site and there were a couple of radar buildings up there. I went out and talked to the DM because I was in the materials division of the Air Force and I was in the Army Air Corps then; it’s just Air Force now. I went out and talked to them and they gave me a letter releasing the site, to the University. Then I went to the Forest Service and they approved it.
We took over their buildings and they’re still there. There were two domes that weren’t quite what you’d want for an observatory, but they still worked fine for infrared, and that’s what we had to do. We got tractors and snowplows and trucks and trailers and stuff we needed when we were doing all this testing of different sites for Kuiper. One of the tractors went to Mexico when Arnold Evans built the road up to the top. That’s where they have their telescope now. I think the 21-inch is still about halfway up to Mauna Kea, before they get in to where they need to have oxygen. That’s where he did his testing and found it to be great.
That’s the reason I came in was to get the construction of the Kuiper Telescope—then the 61-inch—done and completed. I think there’s probably a 21-inch telescope in Flagstaff, too; I think he left one there. You’ll find them all over. I think there’s one in Flagstaff, one in Hawaii, and one in Mexico. He used them for testing.
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