LIGO: Looking Ahead, Looking Back

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Publication date: 
19 November 1999

One week ago, National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell spoke at the inauguration of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) facility in Livingston, Louisiana. LIGO's other facility is located in Hanford, Washington. Built at a cost of almost $300 million, LIGO is the largest single enterprise ever undertaken by the foundation.

LIGO detectors are now being installed, to be followed by testing and commissioning. First observations are expected in 2002. The California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology designed and constructed LIGO. As described by NSF, LIGO "is designed to detect and measure the faintest of signals reaching earth from space and test fundamental predictions of physics."

In her remarks, Colwell said, "High-risk, yet on-time and on- budget, LIGO's progress exemplifies our willingness and our ability, working together, to extend the frontiers of the future. This observatory is the first of its kind and represents truly fundamental science, which no other federal agency could have supported. While LIGO will probe the distant past of the universe, it will also carry us forward. In this way it typifies NSF's investments in leading-edge research and education."

Colwell continued, "As one of NSF's flagship projects, LIGO suggests another essential tenet in plotting our course for science and that is the importance of setting priorities, and of persevering toward them."

Perseverance is a good word to describe LIGO's history. While it has received the full support of Congress in recent years, that was not always the case. LIGO is a very good example of how sound stewardship was able to overcome what at times seemed daunting odds.

Looking back through past issues of FYI reveals that Congress was once highly skeptical of LIGO. When former NSF Director Erich Bloch appeared before the House VA, HUD, Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee in 1990, the response of subcommittee members was described as "unsettling." One member asked Bloch, "What's the great loss?" if LIGO was not built. The subcommittee zeroed the request, an action repeated in the Senate. In the end, NSF only received $500,000 to continue R&D on the observatory.

In 1991, an issue of FYI reported that "NSF request for LIGO funding is in trouble." House appropriators spent a significant portion of the two-day NSF budget hearing asking tough questions about LIGO. The FYI stated, "At the conclusion of his questioning, [Rep.] Atkins noted that often physicists assume that the need for support of many of their projects is 'self evident.' Only a physicist with an advanced degree would think that, he noted."Later that summer, Senate appropriators had almost no LIGO questions for then NSF Director Walter Massey. In another few weeks, the House Science Subcommittee passed a bill prohibiting LIGO construction funding. House appropriators, mirroring their actions in 1990, approved only $500,000 for LIGO R&D. This time, Senate appropriators followed a different course: they provided the full request. LIGO, in the space of less than two months, had turned a corner. On September 27, conference action on the NSF bill was completed,and LIGO had the full $23.5 million the Bush Administration had requested.

On February 19, 1992, Director Massey announced that LIGO's facilities would be built in Washington and Louisiana. An FYI stated, "With today's announcement, LIGO construction seems assured. Members of Congress representing the two sites were present, indicative of what one said was the 'base of congressional support' for LIGO. It was significant that during the half-hour briefing considerable attention was devoted by all parties to the economic impact to the two communities surrounding the LIGO installations, as well as to the nation's technological base. Massey also gave particular attention to the benefits which LIGO will have in attracting students to science."Despite this support, there was great pressure on the overall federal budget; NSF did not receive its full LIGO request.

In 1993, an FYI notes that the House VA, HUD Subcommittee Chairman asked Director Massey "if it was not true that once started, such projects [such as LIGO] take on 'a political life of their own,' making it impossible to cut or downgrade the projects. Massey, amidst general laughter, replied 'yes, Mr. Chairman.'"That was not a universal statement; in October, Congress terminated the superconducting super collider.

FYIs in subsequent years, through the tenure of NSF Director Neal Lane, make almost no comments about congressional sentiments on the budget requests for LIGO. LIGO had gone from controversy to acceptance. Nine years after Congress zeroed out construction funding for the project, LIGO construction is now complete.

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