Oral History Transcript — Dr. Goetz Oertel
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
See the catalog record for this interview and search for other interviews in our collection
Interview with Dr. Goetz Oertel
Goetz Oertel; April 9, 2001
ABSTRACT:This interview is a follow-up to a previous interview by S. Weart in 1978. The interview deals with Oertel's career since then. Primary topics are Oertel's time at Department of Energy and his participation in various nuclear waste programs. Interactions with environmentalists, other agencies. In 1986, Oertel became president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. Remainder of interview focuses on his involvement with AURA, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Gemini Telescopes Project, and the astronomy community in general.
Session I | Session II
McCray:Figuratively you had just arrived at ARA. We spent some time talking about managing the Hubbell Space Telescope. I had one general question before we talked about Gemini and things that followed from that. One of the questions would be when you joined ARA in '86, did you perceive that there was importance in having your organization be involved in managing another large scale facility like Gemini in addition to Hubbell? Is this part of ensuring the survival of ARA as an institution?
Oertel:No. What seemed very important was to make a success of the units we had, and that meant in the case of Hubbell see that it works and do our part to see that it works. In the case NOAO, it was very clear that NOAO was at a crossroads, and it wasn't quite clear where it would be headed. It wanted to go in way towards this huge telescope, the National Technology Telescope. There were others who felt that that's not what it should do. There was a lot of discussion about what existing units should do. There was not much discussion about coming up with a third unit. As a matter of fact, if anything, we felt like we had our hands full with two units and that both needed a lot of attention and care and feeding. So that if somebody had suggested here's another patient whom you might want to take on, I would've felt well my hospital is full.
McCray:When you say units, you're referring to Kit Peak and CTIO?
Oertel:No. Kit Peak and CTIO, of course they're part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, and still are, as at the time was National Sole Observatory. That's one unit. A unit is a contract, if you'd like to define it that way. Another unit might have been a place like maybe if RCBO [?] had been up or the National Radio Astronomy Observatory had been up for competition, and if there had been problems with one or the other of those then you might've been interested in taking on the management. That would've been a third unit. But the other two units that we already had, as I said, had enough problems to completely keep us occupied.
McCray:You said NOAO was at a crossroads at this point and you alluded to two different segments in the community, I guess, that had different visions. Can you speak about to that?
Oertel:I thought we'd spent a good bit of time on that.
McCray:We did, but again some of these questions are repeats for the infinite purposes of the AIP interview.
Kit Peak and CTIO were created basically because there was a demand in the astronomical community in the United States for access to telescopes. I mean the private telescopes were built such as Palamar [?], the most recent one at the time. It turned out that they were really not accessible to most of the community. They were in fact not intended to be community instruments. They were intended to strengthen the institutions that built them by attracting the very best of them, and they did a marvelous job doing this. But it left astronomers who did not want to move to those institutions or who didn't get an offer from them without a place to observe and get competitive data. That's what caused the pressure on the NSF, and in fact it cause separation of ARA itself and ultimately led to Kit Peak and later Saratolona [?] being created.
Now when I came onboard that was history, but it hadn't really quite been forgotten. There was still hard feelings on both sides. One side felt that the best science would be served by spending all of this money not on Kit Peak and Saratolona, but to spend it on instruments and other support for the people who are using the existing large telescopes. There was some others felt simply that the demand in the community was for grants and not for observing time. Observing time would be for quick finds and if they had grant money they might be able to get access to some existing telescopes.
That was one side. Then there was the other side, the people who did not have access who depended on our national observatories exclusively or almost exclusively and who really wanted to strengthen that and see modern instruments, modern telescopes built there. You can see that those two were really headed in very different directions. In this force field the question then came up what should NOAO really do? That's when we had these workshops. We had a community group called together in my first year. This was just from the
McCray:The Future Directions Committee.
Future Directions Committee saw the report. You saw that they actually recommended a number of rather drastic departures from what the NOAO itself wanted. NOAO itself wanted the four eight-meter telescopes on a single mount. This group showed no interest and enthusiasm for it, and instead recommended we go to single eight-meter telescopes. And that was driven by a number of things, but not the least of which was that eight-meter telescopes had become a) much more affordable, and b) there were ways on the horizon, though little did we know how well they would work out, to make them perform better than we thought ground based telescopes could.
I'm talking about adoptive optics, of course. Some people knew something about that, although it couldn't be talked about. But there was this idea that maybe this technology would eventually be affordable and available to ground based telescopes, which of course ultimately it was. When you look at this in retrospect you'd have to say that this was a superb change in direction. Because if we'd had four eight-meter telescopes on a single mount, if that system had somehow not worked you would've had four telescopes forever condemned to look in the same direction, and maybe neither of them working very well whereas this way we have individual eight-meter telescopes and lots of them.
Oertel:Much more flexibility, and they can be instrumented differently. And of course, there are plans to try to hook them together and make them work as interferometers, such as Magellan and binocular.
McCray:At this time in 1987 were there particular people in the science community that were effective in getting your attention and that emerged as spokespeople for these different facets of the community or factions of the community?
Oertel:Yes. I heard a lot from Caltech, Dave Morrisrow [?] for example, by telling me that at the time that he was going after not one, but two Keck telescopes. He really felt that we would be core cousins forever and tried to push us into doing things that would compliment what Caltech would do.
McCray:Rather than compete.
Oertel:Rather than compete, exactly. Interestingly enough, Martin Schmidt, who was very influential of course at Caltech didn't push in this direction at all, quite to the contrary. As you know he eventually be ARA Chairman and pushed us into excellence in our own endeavors. Meaning finding niches such as infrared, such as the eight-meter in the south, and to excel, to do the best possible that could be done with those telescopes. Complimenting in fact what Keck does also, but also competing with it, of course, to the extent that they were superior. They had the ability to be superior.
McCray:I've been thinking about this question between having a complimentary facility versus a facility that would compete with the private telescopes. Was there any push from an early stage in making what turned out to be the Gemini telescopes to be unique facilities? How did that aspect begin to emerge from the project?
Initially an eight-meter telescope would be virtually unique in any way. It would be different from the ten-meter Keck because it had the single mirror. You didn't know at the time how well Keck would work, you didn't know how well the other would work, but there was a feeling that the two being such fundamentally different technologies would be unique in their own ways that one would do best in one area and the other would do best in another. Which in fact has turned out to be the case.
It wasn't predicted where that would be. The most unique aspect to the Gemini North telescope in particular is its capability in infrared. That was a combination. It really arose out of different things. The first one was the site. There was a site selection process. There was an Arizona mountain in competition under consideration, and Monakai [?] and of course Monakai was selected. The selection of Monakai opened the door to doing much better in the infrared than could ever have been done from an Arizona mountaintop. That was one thing that pushed in this direction.
The second thing that pushed in this direction was that particularly then the Decadal Survey looked at what should be done in the '90s. They came up with the idea that an infrared optimized telescope should be the top, should be the most important new initiative. The survey played a major role. Infrared was of course one of the capabilities already, but it was not the unique capability. Rather it was one of two different missions. You could define those as optical and infrared.
Yes. Well, integrated in the sense that it's the same telescope, but using different instruments. Now what the Academy really caused was that the telescope itself could not be a compromise between it's optical and infrared instruments that you could use on it. But rather that the telescope itself would be optimized for the infrared, and so it is. That has a lot to do with the fact that you today see Gemini as a particularly elegant looking design. Elegant simply because there should be as little metal as possible in the field of view so that you have nothing to radiate and get in the way.
You end up with it something very sleek and elegant looking. The elegance was a byproduct, wasn't the intent, but it's still there. That was caused by the survey. Then the capability to coat the mirror with silver. That looked very iffy at first. If the survey had not recommended that, I think it's very unlikely that one would have actually gone for that capability. But infrared optimized meant at least that you should try to have a silver coating on an eight-meter mirror.
That capability was built into it because of that. That's how the uniqueness developed. I should say that this didn't really take away very much from the optical capabilities. Yes a little bit in the terms of the types of spectroscopy you could do, but by and large optimizing for the infrared also meant that you would have fantastic performance in the visible.
McCray:In the early stage the project had some difficulties in terms of the mirror selection, which you and I have talked about at great length, but also with expanding the international partnership. I'd like to spend a bit of time talking about that because I think that might be of interest to people who are curious about how such collaborations are put together. Before we do that, I wanted to ask you about at this time the Super Conducting Super Collider, that wasn't officially put out of existence until '93, but there were signs that it was not going as well as it could have been going. I was wondering was this something that you were paying attention to in early '90s as Gemini was getting off the ground? Was there anything about that you were paying any attention to?
Well obviously you paid attention to what happens in the rest of science. I think this was a very serious shot before the bowel of the great steamer of science, the big science, that is. I remember hearing Al Trevopiece [?], who was the prime mover behind the Super Conducting Super Collider, say that the country can afford it and we should spend the money on this project. I also saw while I was at DOE, as I was until '86, I saw the cost of the project going up. It wasn't talked about very much that it was happening.
So I wasn't that surprised when at some point the system decided enough was enough and we can't spend that. It's a tragedy when you think about the fact that billion dollars, which is more than 10 Gemini telescopes, was spent on the aborted effort to build the Super Conducting Super Collider. But that also tells you that we really were in a different class. The push at that time was very strong at the policy level in the Congress for international cooperation. You also heard this out of the OMB, the Science Advisor's Office at the time. Most importantly you saw that Eric Brock picked up on it. I think Eric was very heavily influenced by the demise of the Super Conducting Super Collider.
He saw that there was a big science project that didn't make it, but tried to have the U.S. go it alone and it didn't work. I don't think Eric ever wanted to be there, wanted the NSF to be there. Now I don't know this first hand from him. You'd have to ask him, but that is the way I read him because he said to us, "Well okay. Do this internationally and I'll see what I can do to make it happen." And he did, and we did. I think there are some linkages here. They are somewhat tenuous. It would be difficult to prove.
But the environment was there. The environment told you you can't do big projects yourself anymore without risking being stopped even if you have tremendous political support as the Super Conducting Super Collider had. The other thing it told you is that the U.S. doesn't want to do it alone anymore, you know, on the really big projects cooperate. Those two messages were of course listened to by— It isn't that we made our project smaller in order to do this. It was made smaller for other reasons.
McCray:But this idea of it being in the air, for lack of a better description, this was something that people in position such as yourself of managing science projects were aware of and in the air I suppose for lack of a better word?
Oertel:Yes. I mean we talked to Congressional Staff a lot. We talked to the OMB people. We talked to the Agency people, and that is the kind of thing that was happening. When you try to fly trial balloons, what do you think about this and what do you think about that, you would find out very quickly that certain things would have a resonance, find a resonance and say, "Yes, that would be interesting, but you know, I wouldn't spend a lot of time on that one if I were you." Say you've tested the system and you find out what will go, you don't necessarily then just follow that. It's the easy way. But if you have a project this one that is not so huge and you see this opportunity to make it happen much sooner in this way, then you go after it.
McCray:Were there particular people at the OMB that you would interact with on a semi regular basis to discuss these issues?
Oertel:I didn't interact very much directly with the OMB, but having been there myself during a budget season and maintaining connections with the people I worked with, I had a pretty good feel for how the wind was blowing in the OMB. For reasons I mentioned earlier when we were talking, OMB is not a place that makes things happen other than budget cuts. You don't want to raise your project particularly with the OMB. It might just give them ideas that it would be a good one to kill. So what you do is you follow the good German proverb that says— Well, let me put it this way: "Don't go to your Prince if you're not summoned." The Prince in this case is OMB and OMB never summoned me so I never went to them. The guy who summoned about it eventually was Dick Mallow [?] out of the Appropriations Committee.
McCray:Since you bring that up, let's talk about Dick Mallow a little bit. I think in the future people will look at his role and find it curious that a person who was a Congressional Staffer working for somebody who was opposed to project like the Hubbell Space Telescope eventually ended up working for ARA. I'm curious how your relationship with him developed over time and what you can say about that whole process.
I'd be happy to be quite frank about that. Dick and I were basically advisories when he was in the Congress. He was, in fact, one of the people who were trying to stop big projects. He would tell you so. And who was quite interested in seeing them go on international basis, not so much because the U.S. couldn't afford it, they could; but because he didn't want the U.S. to just have to pay the whole bill all the time. In particular I had my first interactions with him on the National New Technology Telescope, which he had taken a rather dislike to, was of course a lot larger than Gemini. He felt it should not be carried out. He had then told the NSF that it shouldn't.
So whenever anything was happening at NOAO or ARA that looked to him as if it might be pursuing this project, he got quite upset. This could be very innocent, just R and D in the development of mirrors. The money we spent at the mirror lab in Arizona, well you know that's not spending it on any one particular use of the mirrors. It was just something that seemed the right thing to do because if you have the capability to make bigger mirrors cheaper, then there would all kinds of things you could do with them, which is ultimately turned out to be the case. Dick didn't necessarily see it that way.
I remember one time, I forget whether it the mirror or whatever it was, he called me up and told me basically to cease and desist spending any effort or money on it, and specifically mentioned VNNTT. But then he quizzed me a lot about R and D that was going on. At the time Pat Bouts [?] was the Director of the National Science Foundation. Pat is a very nice person, but not one of great courage, and so she was completely cowed by Mallow.
She was trying to read me the riot act, which I settled with her in an amicable way. But this was how Dick started and his intent was stop big projects and if he stopped them he wanted them stopped dead. He didn't want you to somehow find a way around the stop. He was also, although that came later, pushing for the international collaboration. So then when Eric had gotten the project started with all kinds of assist, and he had talked the committee into supporting it including Mallow.
McCray:The Appropriations Committee?
Oertel:The Appropriations Committee, you know, which was really they're the only that matter because the other that mattered also could say no, but it didn't matter how often they said yes if you didn't have any money. You get nothing so you really ultimately meet with the Appropriations Committee. In the hearing apparently Eric Brock was asked, "How much is this going to cost us?" He gave a number, which was actually quite close to what we lived by. It was within 5%. But he also said 50% international, 50% foreign. It was the 50% foreign that Dick latched onto. He later indicated that he would've been a lot more flexible on the total than he would from the 50%.
McCray:The total cost of the project.
The total cost, exactly. Then we were in this position where, as I think it also came up in our earlier discussion, that we initially had 25% British, 25% Canadian, and we were fat, dumb, and happy with this when the Canadians had a budget crisis and threatened to drop out completely. But eventually went from 25% to 15% and made a firm commitment of 15% left us short 10%. That's when Mallow, who of course had been kept informed of this apparently, started really to beat on me to get the remaining 10%. Without going into the details of that, I kept being summoned to him until one day he summoned me and he said, "Okay. Now I want you to give me a final deadline, by which day you will have this."
As you well know, particularly when you're talking to Brazilians and Argentines and Chileans, it's very difficult to say when you're going to be actually there. I don't like to promise anymore than I can deliver. So I said to him, "I don't know when that's going to be. I can promise you my best efforts." So then he gave the deadline, which was ultimately met by the way. It was defined what would mean meeting it and that would be to have signatures on MOUs, Memorandum of Understanding as opposed to real money. But I also at that point said to him, "Dick, if you're really that intent on having this international collaboration, why don't you go down there and help us sign them up."
McCray:How did you feel about telling a Congressional Staffer why don't you do it?
Oertel:Every once in a while you have to stick out your neck. I mean otherwise why pay to do a job. I stuck my neck way out, but I had some indication that this would not backfire. If it did backfire I'd just go do something else. His reaction to this was very interesting. I think it was a turning point in our relationship because he said nothing
and his connections in the embassies and so on to get us support, have the Ambassador indicate to the governments that this was interesting. The Science Minister in Argentina at San Amutava [?], an extremely impressive individual, who eventually signed the paper himself. He got signed up and even Brazil got signed up. That was the turning point. Then maybe I should say one other thing, namely when we had all the signatures on the MOUs. And it happened that we had the board meeting in Washington.
I had set up a little cocktail party to which I then invited the representatives of the embassies, now six prominent countries other than the U.S. I also had of course invited Dick among others from the Hill. At that party Dick and I had a little discussion that led me to believe that he was really getting interested in this project, that he was in fact changing from being the critic and overseer to one who had an intense interest in the project actually succeeding.
Not long after that we had lunch and he decided to consider a job with ARA. He didn't actually do that for quite some time, but I got him at least as far as coming to my board and giving a presentation about what was going on in astronomy. This was a remarkable meeting by the way because here was the most feared person in all of the Congress, the Clerk of the Appropriations Committee that had NSF and not signed all of these agencies. The fellow with whom you were normally lucky if you got five or ten minutes of his time and he was coming to the board and briefed our board, our executive committee it actually was at the time, on what was going on in Congressional Budgets process.
McCray:In terms of just how the process works?
Oertel:No. What was actually happening that year, what the prospects were for the NSF projects, for the NASA budget, what could be said he said, what couldn't be said of course he didn't. But he really leveled with us. There were questions and then many of the questions had to do with the process actually and we talked about that as well in generic terms. This was all above board, in fact he's one of the most above board I've ever met in my life absolutely principled. But the mere fact that he showed up at a board meeting should have given people a clue that this might go further and eventually it did. I made him an offer later in the fall, and then he accepted it. Then all of a sudden he found himself having to work on these South American partners to keep them in the fold.
McCray:Who had passed getting the MOUs and actually getting money.
Oertel:Getting money, which turned out to be an annual process and a very difficult one at times. In some sense having forced us to live within the fashion of cooperation he ended up being the one who had to actually line it up in the end.
McCray:A lot of drama and irony to that process?
Oertel:Yes, however Dick will tell you that 50% international wasn't his idea. It was Eric Brock's idea. But when Eric Brock said that's what it's going to be, he said, "Alright. That's what it's going to be. But don't come back to me with 49%. It's 50%." He became very, very stubborn on this point, very determined.
McCray:Whenever he joined ARA, was there any consideration on the part of the astronomers that this person who, as you said, was a feared member, a Clerk on the Appropriations Committee, that he was now involved in this process? Was there any, not to put too fine a point on it, a sense that the poacher is not the game keeper?
Oertel:I didn't really see that happening because people knew that he was extremely principled. They expected him to continue to be that way and he did. However, there were some benefits that we reaped. One of them was that at the University of Hawaii there were some games being played with us.
Oertel:Hawaii had interest in, in fact, having the international cooperation fall through, in which case there would be only one telescope. Then they were expecting to make a strong case that it should be Hawaii that should operate it because if it's going to be just one telescope then it will located right in Hawaii.
McCray:Rather than having ARA operate it?
Oertel:Exactly. Or Tucson be involved or whatever. That made good sense from their point of view so he was an advisary and we were in that sense even though we were also cooperating with them. We had all kinds of difficulties. For example, to get sublease on the mountain.
McCray:The actual site for the telescope?
Oertel:The actual site for the telescope. I mean the site had been set aside, but there was a gentleman's agreement. Eventually you have to sign something, a contract and that's actually a sublease. We had had tremendous difficulty getting that signed until about, whenever it was, 17, 18, 19 December of that year that he joined us when I made the announcement.
Yes, it might have been. I'm a little fuzzy on all that. But whenever it was, I put out the press release just before Christmas. The press release of course said he would join us. His first day would be 1 April. He had made a commitment to the Chairman to stay available to the Committee until that time. The response I got from the University of Hawaii was, when I faxed that press release out there, there were two points on there. The first point was good news. We have just obtained the sublease for you.
By a coincidence, after a year and a half the day that we got it was the day that I announced that Dick was coming. The game ended on that same day. That was really what was happening. It wasn't a very clean game to begin with and shouldn't have been there, but it was. When Dick came on board it became clear that the game could not be won so it ended that same day.
The other part of the message by the way was, "Is it really true that Mallow is coming? Is it not maybe an April Fool's joke?" Because it said April 1. Now you could imagine playing an April Fool's joke with the career of the most powerful man in Congress. As far as we were concerned, he was the most powerful man in Congress for science funding. Because nobody would have done that. Anyway, that was the reaction.
McCray:Let's talk about Chile for a little bit. What does a project like Gemini or EASA's VLT mean to a country like Chile that is developing its science community?
Oertel:It means something not only for science, but also for other things obviously. It's tremendous because when you sit in a country like Chile and you look at a annual budget of their Science Foundation Policy, which might have been about a million dollars or so per year, to be divided among all scientific disciplines. If you want to be an astronomer, how much of that can you get? Maybe 10%.
McCray:And that's divided among—
Yes. Then it's divided among all astronomers so there was really no hope to aspire to world leadership, at least in anything that is experimental or observational unless you either find a foundation or you find a partner or you get lucky. In this case, the Chilean sites are so superb that the world just flocks there. All of these big telescopes get built and the Chilean's, as you know, are now getting 10% of the observing time, which is a tremendous wealth. The Chilean's have more time on the eight-meter class telescopes than all of the U.K. had before joining EASA, as it recently did.
Certainly still more than the Dutch or what have you and their astronomy community is small. It numbers somewhere between one or two dozen or so, depending upon how you define astronomers. It's tremendously important. It gives now the science community in Chile the opportunity to not only aspire to some world class work, but to actually be a leading power simply because they've allowed so much observing time that they can undertake projects that require a lot of telescope time. That would be unrealistic for anybody else except maybe Caltech to undertake, but they can do it because they have so much time between the different telescopes. Of course they can trade among the telescopes. So they can actually be a world leader. Whether they really do this or not is another question, but they have that opportunity. Others don't.
If you look at Argentina and Brazil, that's much more modest because all they get is two and a half percent each of the observing time. They look and they pay for it. For them it is a share of a window, it's a small window, but if they're selective and they're good and they're smart and know how to use it they can aspire to world class work. But not the way the Chileans can.
McCray:So even within South America there's a real split almost between haves and have- nots just within the South American community.
Oertel:I wouldn't call the Argentineans and the Brazilians have-nots. In fact they're very strong in many ways. For example in numbers, there the communities are much larger, but their access to telescopes is much more limited than the Chileans. That puts the Chileans in a wonderful bargaining position. They can invite people to come to Chile, work here for six months. We won't pay you anything, but we'll give you access to observing time. The observing time is worth much more than they could possibly be paid. So you will find, and this is already happening, you will find universities outside Chile paying their people to go down there as long as the Chileans will arrange for them to get some telescope time.
McCray:Almost like some sort of migration or brain drain if you will south for people to work here for a while.
Oertel:I don't think it'll come anywhere close to where you could call it a brain drain. I mean, there aren't that many desks in Chile for astronomers to work at. But it will be a shift in a percentage sense because you saw very little of this in the past and you will now see substantially more.
McCray:Another person whose role I'm curious about is Harry Barnes. Before we move off the topic of Chile, could you say something about who he is and what his role in keeping Chile involved was?
Harry Barnes, a former U.S. Ambassador to Chile. He was the Ambassador during the critical period, the last legs of the Administration of Pinoshee [?]. Though he has never talked about it, I understand from people in the State Department that he was highly active and instrumental in convincing Pinoshee to the course of action that eventually led to his departure. Namely the Pueblo site followed by election only if he would lose the Pueblo site, which he never thought he would. Barnes also has the highest decoration that Chile can give to a non- Chilean. It's a Bernardo Higgins Order, which was given to him here. I was present when it was given to him at the Chilean Embassy, a reception, and stands very high in Chile even today.
Because in some sense he helped, was a midwife at the second birth of Chilean Democracy. He was a member of our Board of Directors at ARA at the time when we had 40 or so directors before we restructured. He was a Director at Large. This had come about because he was friends with Bob Williams, our Director at Saratolona. When the time came that Canada dropped from 25% to 15% and we needed 10%, he was the person I talked to. I told him, "Harry, if we don't come up with the 10%, then there will be no second telescope, there will be only one, and it will go into Hawaii.
That would not only be a loss to Chile and to ARA and to the U.S. community, it will also spell the eventual end of Saratolona because there would be no new telescope coming there and everybody was building new telescopes. So Barnes encouraged me to put together a paper on this, which I think you've seen, but now don't have a copy of.
McCray:This is the economic benefits.
Oertel:The economic benefits, I used that I think. We worked with some officials high in the government of President Ailwind [?]. That was the time during which this happened. Ailwind was the first post-Pinoshee President. In the reining days of the Ailwind Administration, I received the very good news that he had slated the government that Chile should join the Gemini project. That was the good news. There was also bad news. He had gone for 10% for Chile and Chile had taken half of that, 5%. That then caused us to go for the other 5% elsewhere in Chile, and that's how Argentina and Brazil came on the table. The other thing Harry Barnes did for us, continues to do for us, is to give us important advice on how to deal with Chile in issues that may arise rather it's in Gemini or in the astronomy law or other things in Chile. He's worked closely with us.
McCray:In a consultant sort of capacity or advisor.
Oertel:As an advisor. He's never been paid, but he has advised us a lot.
McCray:Tell me about the restructuring ARA board. This happened during your tenure so what brought that about?
Well even when you look at the Future Directions Report it was suggested there that ARA should grow in the number of it's members. That as it did it would truly at some point have to restructure because it would get to large, the board would get to large. It was signaled at that point first. Then after the Future Directions Committee Report had come out and we had taken a good number of additional members and indeed the board had grown every time. There was one member designated by each member university at present, one board member.
Then there were twelve at large and then there was the president. So when you are the thirties in members and then you add twelve and then you add one you are into the forties, well into the forties. In addition to that it had been pointed out to the NSF as well as to me, but I've heard this actually from NSF, that there was a conflict of interest in having presidents of member universities that potentially could be competitors, as they sometimes were we mentioned two of them in this interview and have them appoint people to our board of directors. Now we have conflict of interest rules, and of course they were supposed to disclose any conflict and recuse themselves, and so on and so forth. It was in a usual process for that and it actually worked in that people were recused even if they didn't want to be recused. But even though that was there, intrinsic problem remained, and that it was sometimes put this way.
If you had a rogue member university, a rogue president, that person could appoint a rogue director within the alien agents of the site sitting right on the board that's responsible for the management of the organization. Be it they'll dilute it by 40 or so, being one out of 40, but as you well know you put one agent like that in you can do a lot of damage to the organization if in no other way than the fact that that individual can say well I'm a member of the ARA board and I tell you what, as Lynn said, could be at variance with the policies or interests or whatever of ARA.
This was pointed out and the NSF at the time told me that they would recompete the contract with ARA unless we would fix this problem, unless I would fix this problem. I had been obviously interested in doing this anyway. It would make my life a lot easier if I had an elected board as opposed to dealing with all these 40 some people of varying degrees of loyalty to the organization. I undertook this. The fact that the NSF wanted it help me actually getting it done. There was obviously some opposition against it.
Oertel:From individual member universities or their representatives, their board members. Nobody ever said that this would take away my ability to cause trouble. That was never the reason given, but there were all kinds of reasons given why this was not good. However, it was done. It was done by setting up a Committee on ARA Management Assessment, CAMA something like that we called it.
McCray:When did the restructuring take place?
Oertel:I'd have to look it up. It was about five, six years ago now.
Oertel:Mid '90s. This committee then made the recommendations made up with some pretty sage people who knew about organizations who were provosts of universities and so on. Eventually we pushed it through. It took a lot of doing and a certain amount of compromising, but it was done. The net affect of it, if you put a bottom line on it, is that the member university now no longer has a role in the management of the organization. It is like a stockholder. The representative of the university casts one vote and this vote is cast for the chairman and it is cast for members of the board. In that sense it's completely equivalent to any regular corporation where you have stockholders, and as you know every stockholder has a vote, or as many votes as the person may hold shares. So that's how it now works. It is still possible of course for people to vote for vote members or candidates.
McCray:To elect to the board?
Oertel:Yes, but they could not be elected unless there was a majority. That effectively means that as long as a majority is, you don't have enough majority of votes which is very unlikely, you are not going to have a board that is anything but sworn to uphold it's fiduciary responsibility towards the corporation as opposed to it's responsibility to the fellow who appointed them.
McCray:How many elected members are there?
Oertel:We made some changes since I left, but I think there are twelve. And then also the Management Councils of which we now have three chairman of those are also members of the board. That's the change that's taken place.
McCray:What do the Management Councils do?
Oertel:The Management Council basically executes everything, all the powers of the board that relate to just a single unit. For example, Space Telescope Institute Council deals with everything having to do with the Space Telescope Science Institute. They only thing they don't have complete responsibility for is to appoint the Director or to sign the contract. Appointing the Director is something the corporation does. The board has to approve the choice of Director, but the Search Committee and the council comes up with the candidates. The council has a tremendous role in this and the board only does this last step. Similarly when it comes to signing a contract the council doesn't get that much involved in this. That's the board because that's basically an Administrative Management Financial corporate obligation type of thing more than having to do with the substance of what gets done in the science. So the contract the board handles, but all the fun stuff goes to the council.
McCray:My last set of questions relate more to looking to the future. Before we get to those, I wanted to know if there are any topics or issues related to your time at ARA that we haven't talked about that you feel are worth covering.
Oertel:Well, we have thought at times that ARA should look beyond the existing units and go after other business. The corporation is set up to work in astronomy and related sciences. That's fairly big.
McCray:Related sciences being?
Oertel:What science is not related to astronomy? There is more and more in that area. I mean the biological sciences are much more related than they used to be.
Oertel:Astrobiology and so on. What might it do? The first thing the corporation decided that under no circumstances would it undertake something that did not require independent scientific judgement on the part of the corporation. Let me give an example. Goddard came to us and said they wanted us to support them in the operation of the Gamma Ray Observatory.
McCray:This is the Compton?
Oertel:The Compton, right. I started looking at what [Tape 2, Side A]
to recruit the people, and we would've had a lot latitude in recruiting them. And by people I mean the scientific staff. But after they were recruited, our role would basically be to pay them and supervise them in a general sense, but they would work for Goddard for the project leaders at Goddard. So basically they're providing hands and arms and legs support for Goddard. We definitely did not want to do this. I contrast that, for example, with Space Telescope where we hire the director the of the institute. We decide who's going to get time on Hubbell. We give out the grants, and we operate this very much independently of NASA, subject of course to their general direction.
It is that kind of a job that we would do. There are other jobs like that that we might've done. We were proposing to team with Smithsonian for operating the AXF [?], as it was called at the time. We actually won that one as ARA. But Charlie Pelleran [?] who was at the time, in charge at NASA, was so angry at Ricardo Gicconi [?], whom he suspected of having designs on running all of the observatories whether NASA like it or not, that the entire role of NASA was carefully excised from the winning bid of Smithsonian. So we actually an empty bag in this case. It was a very interesting situation. There was another situation where we applied for and did not win and that was the Sophia Project.
McCray:Who was the manager of ??? ?
Oertel:It is managed basically by Aims, with a little support. It turned out that what Aims was looking for was to retain as much control as possible, and after what I told you about the way we operate, we didn't qualify. We had a very good team. We were with the University of California, Santa Cruz and had really some of the best astronomers in the country in this project with us. But even though we were quite adjacent to Aims itself, Aims did not select us. We had less for them to do for Aims researchers than the winning bid. That was in retrospect very clear that it could not be won by us.
McCray:It doesn't seem like that project has gone particularly well.
I haven't looked. We were asked to consider getting involved with running Space Station Science. The board looked at this and decided it didn't want to even though we would've been given a certain amount of latitude there or might have been we didn't want to do that. There was interesting anecdote. Let me see, who was the Deputy Director of the NSF who became the head of the Consortion that runs Fermi Lab [?], I'll think of his name in a second. He, after taking on Fermi Lab, that was after John Tull [?] and losing the Super Conducting Super Collider, that consortion decided that it could run other things and started showing an interest in Space Telescope Science Institute.
They inquired with NASA as to when the contract would be up. I found out about this from the Vice-Chairman of my board, who was a provost of a major university. I retaliated in this one, having been in the Department of Energy myself, by talking to some people at the University of Chicago about possibly having ARA take over the management of Fermi Lab. Then I used some of my connections to the Energy Department to inquire about whether there would be an interest. They were enthusiastic about having some competition. So no sooner had I done this, when the same Vice-Chairman who had alerted me to this and whom of course I had kept informed every step of the way while doing this, received a call from Burnthal, that was his name.
McCray:At the NSF?
Oertel:No, he was already the president of the other consortium. Irate about the fact that we're going after their business, namely Fermi Lab. Of course that was put to bed very quickly as being tit for tat. I had since learned that in the corporate world this is a very normal thing. If another company tries to take you over, even if it's bigger than you are, the best way to fight back is to threaten to take them over. This was one little exchange which was never too serious I don't think on either side. It might've been quite serious on their side because Space Telescope of course is quite a plum.
McCray:With NGST coming online down the road also.
It wasn't at the time. I mean we made NGST we created it sort of out of whole cloth by deciding that we needed to do for the Space Telescope Institute what the Strong Committee had done for NOAO. We set up what turned out to be Dresler [?] Committee, which was called HST and Beyond. That committee came up with NGST. That then as you know gathered a lot of momentum because HSTD was doing so well, Hubbell was doing so well. That is now the future of the telescope, in fact of the Space Telescope business and also the institute.
I felt very strongly that for all the units that we operate, we should not only see to it that they operate well in the present, but also that they should have something exciting for the future that they could aspire to because organizations die if they don't. We had Gemini for the night timers. We had NGST for Hubbell. We developed similarly for the solar people, the then Solar Telescope, which is not a top priority in the survey as you know. The thing I feel maybe best about is the fact that we were able to develop a future for all of them in this way.
McCray:I've often wondered about where the drive comes from to keep building more and more instruments. My perception is that because the time for building these, say for example we're building a 30-meter telescope. The lead time is so long that it seems that an organization has barely finished putting the last bring in place for say Gemini when already they're beginning to think about the next instrument. Where do you see the drive for the phenomenon coming from?
The first drive has to be the science. When you have a telescope completed and even if you don't quite have it completed yet, but if it's close enough so you can smell it, you know what it's performance is going to be and you've seen sample data of the nature, then you will know not only what it will do, but you also see what the limitations are. It's a very natural next step to say well, what would it take to overcome the limitations. If you can do it with the existing basic telescope, of course, then it's called an instrument, to build a better instrument. There are certain things of course you cannot accomplish that way. In collecting light and wave fronts over a wider appeture are two things that you can't retrofit through instruments. So then that's done.
Now there's another driver for this, which is however I think the wrong driver. That is that you say well we have this team that has just done this wonderful job building X. Before the team disperses, they should be doing the next telescope. I think that's all wrong because the people who were best for what you just built are not necessarily the best for the next step. It may take different technologies. It make take different, it certainly does take different vision. And besides, the projects that have worked best are the ones where you start off with an inspirational leader and a project manager and engineer to support the work with that leader, but no requirement having to hire or use such and such people. We actually did this in Gemini very deliberately.
When Gemini was set up, I told the director and the manager that they were under no obligation to hire anybody from anywhere within ARA. That rather the obligation was to hire the best in the world and if they happen to be in our organization then they could hire them away from whatever they were doing. But when you're running an organization there's maybe 1% of the effort in the world. The likelihood that you have 100% of the talent that would be best to do the next step is very small. So they went after the best and they hired them from all over the place. You can check where they come from.
They came from different countries. There was no requirement by the way to hire anybody from any particular country either. And they did extremely well. I personally would prefer for them to continue to provide the operations support for Gemini, but not build the next one. But at that, I'm actually at issue with my successor, who is building up an organization that is using the resources from Gemini. I'm not saying that can't work, but my own view is kind of radical in this way. The view is you always take the best people. And the likelihood that you already have them is very small.
McCray:So Gemini, for example, shouldn't necessarily serve as the nucleus to grow a 30- meter telescope? It may have some of the people, but it doesn't necessarily have all of the people for what it required.
Oertel:That's correct. I think that Gemini has tremendous amount to offer to whoever is going to do the 30-meter telescope project in terms of studies, in terms of experience, in terms of know how, and whatnot, but they should not themselves run it. It just seems to me that there should be somebody who then looks at all these different possibilities. Gemini, EASO, VLT, Keck, Magellan, Binocular telescope, you know, all of those different projects and pick the very best from each one and go with that. I mean that's the best strategy to go forward. Now we had the luxury to be able to do it in Gemini because nobody told me not to. We just did it. Sometimes you have constraints. An example, I mean now I'm just speculating, but EASO will be a very big part of whatever the next thing is going to be, and EASO almost certainly is going to want to keep a lot of their own people. You're going to be stuck with some of that.
McCray:How much credibility or value can you put to the statement that with these large telescopes, eight-meters and beyond, the ground based astronomy is becoming more like particle or high energy physics?
Once the first person wants a ten-billion-dollar class ground-base telescope, we'd be there. We're not there. But Gemini is about 1% of that. The next step is going to be 10%, and that's getting close. There won't be another one that's not going to be of this nature. In saying this, I emphasize the word ground-based. When you go into space it is of course more costly, but when you go into space just like going to the South Pole, you're not going there exclusively because of the science. Yes, you only do science that requires it, otherwise you do something else there. But there is a national presence in space. There's a national presence in Antarctica.
A lot of that has to be charged off to that. The most extreme case to me is the space station where of course almost 100% of it has to be charged off to national presence. I haven't seen any signs yet that that's worth that investment. I mean that's an extreme and that probably never should've been done. Even if you take Hubbell, you take NGST, you take any of these projects, I think part of it is going to be just to maintain a national presence in space. If you're going to have a national presence in space, it might as well do something useful as opposed to being like the space station.
McCray:Which spends around.
Oertel:You said it.
McCray:I think I'll just edit that part.
Oertel:I mean, they can't cut my pension any more.
McCray:That's pretty much all of the questions that I have. Is there anything else that you would like to discuss while we're here as part of this interview?
Maybe some anecdotes might be of interest involving people. I mentioned the feud between Charlie Pellegran and Ricardo Gicconi. First, both have tremendous egos and both want to be absolutely in charge. That describes that the two could never co-exist in the same system without friction. I found myself being the lubricant quite frequently between the two. From a contractual point of view I was the head of the contract and Charlie Pellegran could commend my counterpart, namely the contracting officer in Goddard. Gicconi as a director was key personnel. That meant as contract mumbo jumbo, what it means in practice that you can't either hire them or fire them or renewing without NASA approval.
When it came time to renew Gicconi the second time, the first time they had no trouble, but the second time he came up for renewal, Charlie was so irate at him that he had told Goddard to get rid of him. Fortunately Goddard at the time was led by some people who had more sense than perhaps the contracting officer would have had. They worked out a compromise with me. I got very close to being directed to let him go, but in the end what was done was that I gave the board of director himself a, not a seat on our council, that wouldn't be legal. But an invitation to be there anytime that he wanted to outside of executive session. He never came, but for the purpose of winning his argument against Charlie Pellegran, it was essential that you could come at any time.
This was the way it was set up, and every since then and I think ARA is still doing this, it sends a personal invitation to the Director of Goddard Space Flight Center every time that the Space Telescopes Institute Council meets. If you're lucky he comes for dinner and gives some summary remarks, but that was that. Of course the other one I've already mentioned, the AXF competition where we got punished for supporting Ricardo. In the end I think NASA and many at NASA have told me that they've extremely happy with having Gicconi there. Without Gicconi, they could not have built its Space Telescope Science Institute into an organization capable of running this extremely demanding mission.
Of course the other thing that Ricardo did was he fixed the other flaw of the Hubbell Telescopes that's much less well known than the mirror flaw, which he solved by surprise because we were cut out of the classified facilities that we would've had to get into to see the mirror in and of itself. But the software wasn't going to work either. I think we talked about that.
McCray:A little bit, yes.
Oertel:Basically the software was about a factor of 100 too slow. If Challenger had not gone into the water, then Hubbell would've been launched on time and it would've taken us maybe a year or two to find out that the mirror was flawed, simply because we didn't have the software to command the telescope. At that point, I think it would've been the death of the telescope. They would not have done what they did for us after the flaw was discovered.
McCray:Do you think there's any possibility for these types of situations to take place with the next generation space telescope given the fact that TRW and Lockheed apparently have some experience in the classified world of building things that unfold in space that NGST being a civilian project? Have their been any corporate or institutional, cultural shifts to prevent a similar occurrence?
I hesitate on answering because I don't know what it's like now, but when NGST was first set up we were all extremely sensitive what had happened, NASA as much as we. The one thing that we insisted on, and NASA agreed with us, was that that project scientists had to be independent of NASA, namely at the institute, and the project scientists had to have complete visibility into the project including any classified technology. You just have to give the individual the necessary clearances so that the individual can find out all aspects that matter to the telescope's performance.
If you're still on this course, then I would feel a lot better about it. I mean you can never guarantee that things are going to work, but if you set up barriers that keep the scientists from being able to worry about aspects of the telescope that's going to do his work for him or her, then that's a prescription for disaster. Because there's nothing more demanding than the science use of the technology. You can write engineering specs. Engineers are wonderful. They will meet all of the specifications that you give them. You give them a requirement, it becomes a hard thing and they will meet it, but only if they have full visibility, which they didn't on the Hubbell.
You can't always translate everything that matters in science into engineering requirements. If you try to do it, then your right requirements are then way too tight. The engineers will then say well, in order to meet this we have to do that and that and that. Then suddenly you find the cost ballooning. Then when you get the scientist and engineer together and the scientist asks the engineer, "Why are you doing all of this?" He will say, "Well you gave me this requirement." So the scientist says, "But it's only the last 5% of this requirement that cost you a factor of 10 or 20 in money.
I'll give up the 5% and then we can do other things." So optimizing for science is something that has to be a interactive process that involves the scientist having all of the information as a minimum. Preferably completely in control, and you can't always have that in the NASA realm because there are other important considerations. But at least should have complete visibility into the system and be involved in all of the trade offs. Then you have a chance.
McCray:I have no more questions. Is there anything you would like to add?
Oertel:No. You haven't asked me terribly much about the time at DOE, and in particular in nuclear waste.
McCray:We covered that a lot last time.
Oertel:Yes, we did cover it. I haven't seen the transcript.
McCray:We will have them after the interview is complete. The tapes get sent out, and we didn't want to have them piecemeal.
Then let's let it go at this point.
Session I | Session II