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Monday, December 4, 2023

The Arecibo Observatory Was Like Family. I Couldn't Save It

In the backcountry of Puerto Rico, hidden from prying eyes by round, misty hills, sits one of the world’s great astronomical facilities: the Arecibo Observatory. Conceived in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, the observatory’s radio telescope was a marvel of American engineering. The telescope’s mirror, a 350-ton, bowl-shaped dish assembled from nearly 40,000 perforated aluminum panels, sat in a natural sinkhole more than three football fields across. Four hundred and fifty feet up, suspended over the dish’s center by thick cables strung from three cement towers rising hundreds of feet atop the hills, was a 900-ton triangular platform. There, a suite of instruments was installed to collect radio waves reflected off the dish, and sometimes, to bounce them back into the sky. For six decades, until its collapse on December 1, 2020, the telescope was an engine of discovery, generating groundbreaking results in studies of our atmosphere, the solar system, and the universe beyond.

I first visited the observatory 35 years ago, when I was 12. My father Jack, New York City born and bred, took my two siblings and me to visit his parents in Quebradillas, a few miles west of the city of Arecibo on Puerto Rico’s northwestern coast. My abuelo, Joaquín, a tall, angular man whose charisma and elegance had been lost to a series of strokes, was ailing. I was too young to realize it at the time, but we had come to say goodbye.


I imagine that my father, alone with three kids and his elderly parents, was eager for distractions, and that’s why he drove us to the observatory, an hour inland. I don’t remember much about our visit, save that we walked to an esplanade near the edge of the dish, and that I looked down into its immensity. I had no idea what any of it meant, or that some day I would mourn the telescope’s passing like that of a family member, pained by the knowledge that in my own way I had contributed to its demise. Because the story of Arecibo’s death is also the story of how scientific priorities are decided in this country, and of how bloodless committee reports can ultimately be just as destructive as hurricanes.

In 1995 I returned to the observatory, this time as an undergraduate summer research student supported by the National Science Foundation. I lived in a guesthouse atop a hill, a steep climb up from the cafeteria and pool. A city kid from a busy two-way street in downtown Manhattan, I kept the AC on maximum at night to drown out the coquís’ song so I could sleep. On weekends, the other summer students and I borrowed the observatory’s Mitsubishi Mirage and drove it, hard, to the four corners of the island. We took the ferry to Vieques, two-thirds of which was still off-limits to anyone except the US Navy and its bombs.

When I could, I sat with my abuela, Carmen, in her driveway, looking down the hill to the edge of the island and the Atlantic beyond, and quizzed her about her life. Some of the land I could see had once belonged to her father, whose widowerhood and remarriage had precipitated her escape 65 years before from a hardscrabble rural life on the island to a hardscrabble urban life as a seamstress in East Harlem. Now herself a widow, Abuela cackled joyfully at jokes I only half-understood, enjoying my company while studiously ignoring most of my questions.

It was an exciting time to be at Arecibo, which was marking 30 years of existence with a major upgrade to the radio telescope’s instrumentation. On weekdays I analyzed observations of neutron stars with Kiriaki Xiluri, a staff astronomer and expert on these stars, which are among the most exotic objects in the universe. Every neutron star contains more than a sun’s worth of mass compressed into a sphere not much larger than Manhattan; a sugar cube’s worth of neutron star material weighs a billion tons. Observations of these distant objects are our window onto the behavior of matter under densities far more extreme than anything a laboratory can replicate.

Neutron stars are most commonly detected by the electromagnetic radio waves they emit, and the size and sensitivity of Arecibo’s radio telescope made it one of the world’s premier facilities for their study. It was there in 1974 that Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor discovered the first binary neutron star system: two neutron stars in a tight orbit around each other. Their observations showed that this system was losing energy, slowly pushing the stars toward each other, exactly as predicted by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. In October 1993, less than two years before my 10-week stay at the observatory, this work earned Hulse and Taylor the Nobel Prize in Physics, a rare honor for astronomers.

Toward the end of that summer, I made my way up the catwalk to the top of the platform, feeling more than a bit ridiculous in my orange hard hat, terrified of looking down. The green hills rolled out in all directions. I was on top of the world. Years later, when applying to PhD programs, I would try to recapture that feeling in my personal essay: to convey how those 10 weeks in the hills of Arecibo cemented my desire to become an astronomer.

Arecibo’s inexorable decline began a decade later. In 2005, the NSF decided to review its portfolio of observatories and astronomy research grants, which together at the time cost the agency about $190 million a year. Just like an individual investor, the NSF needs to examine its investments regularly to ensure a healthy balance between those that provide long-term returns (observatories) and those that provide more immediate ones (grants).

Maintaining such a balance is particularly challenging for the NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, which devotes more than half of its budget to supporting the operation of observatories. The balance is never stable: New observatories are always being planned, adding new construction and, eventually, operating costs to the agency’s expenses. Meanwhile, the cost of existing observatories is always increasing, primarily because paying people is expensive. Staff salaries and benefits go up from year to year. Unless federal funding grows rapidly, which it hasn’t for decades, there is bound to be less money available each year for the division to support its other activities. And so, with an eye on plans for new observatories, the NSF asked a panel of eminent astronomers to review the existing ones and decide where $30 million in annual savings could be found.

At the time of this review, Arecibo received $10 million a year from the Division of Astronomical Sciences. The review panel recommended immediately cutting that to $8 million, and to $4 million after 2011. It also pushed the division to seek external partners to take over the cost of running the observatory. If no such partners could be found, the report recommended that Arecibo be closed by 2011. So you could say that the observatory outlived its first death sentence by a decade.

In the fall of the year that report was issued, I was a newly minted PhD starting a postdoctoral fellowship. I had been vaguely aware of the NSF review, but the discussions happened well above my pay grade. Once I saw the report, however, I was outraged at the treatment of Arecibo. One throwaway line was particularly galling. It suggested that, given the observatory’s importance to the island, perhaps the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico would like to pick up the bill for Arecibo’s operating expenses.


At the time, Puerto Rico was in the midst of one of the worst years in its recent history. Months before the report was issued, the island’s government had shut down after running out of funds near the end of its fiscal year. The shutdown lasted for two weeks, left nearly 100,000 public employees without pay, and closed more than 1,600 public schools. Where did my eminent colleagues think this $10 million a year was going to come from?

I also knew that Puerto Rico’s lack of a powerful champion in Congress made Arecibo a soft target. Around the same time, a debate had been taking place over the fate of the Hubble Space Telescope, another iconic astronomical instrument. After the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster, NASA had canceled a planned shuttle mission to service the telescope, deeming it unsafe. As a result, Hubble was set to cease operating by 2007. But then Senator Barbara Mikulski stirred into action. Mikulski represented Maryland, where, not coincidentally, the institute responsible for operating the Hubble is located. As the senior Democrat on the subcommittee that funds NASA, she demanded another review of the risk involved in servicing the telescope, and in 2006 a new NASA administrator reversed the agency's decision. Hubble was visited by space shuttle Atlantis in May 2009 and continues to produce spectacular data to this day.

Puerto Rico has no real influence in Washington, DC, no congressional delegation to push back forcefully when decisions are made that have a direct impact on the island and its people. The island's 3.2 million US citizens are represented in Congress by a single commissioner who can only vote in committees and on procedural matters. When Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, then Puerto Rico’s governor, eventually learned of the 2006 panel’s report, he wrote to the NSF director expressing his dismay at its recommendations regarding Arecibo and his hope that the NSF would work with his administration to review them. No such review took place.

Unfortunately for Puerto Rico, its financial troubles were just beginning. Over the next decade, its gross domestic product and its population would both decline by about 10 percent. By 2015, 46 percent of Puerto Ricans lived below the federal poverty line, compared with the US national average of 13 percent. This, of course, was happening as the government’s debt burden was steadily accumulating, ultimately leaving the island with an unpayable $70 billion bill.

Over that same decade, other committees would look at the NSF’s portfolio, and each time, one outcome was predictable: Arecibo lost. The reports would inevitably salute the observatory’s glorious history of discovery, its importance in educating the next generation of Puerto Ricans (100,000 visitors a year! Outreach programs involving local school teachers and disadvantaged students!), even the site’s unique flora and fauna. And then they would quote the 2006 review and, inevitably, recommend cutting the observatory’s budget. The worst part, at least for me? Several times, I was in the room when that decision was made.

In the summer of 2010, Columbia University offered me a faculty job, and I started on the tenure track. That December, to my surprise, I was invited by the NSF to participate in another portfolio review. Despite the 2006 panel’s efforts, the budget of the Division of Astronomical Sciences had fallen below projections by tens of millions of dollars. A slew of new initiatives had been approved or begun, and we needed to find a way to pay for them.


The NSF had contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the construction of a state-of-the-art radio telescope high in the Chilean desert, the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array. Now the division needed to find the millions to operate that new telescope and another $16 million per year for the construction on Maui of what is now known as the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, named for another powerful senator.

I was easily the least experienced person involved in this review. I was also no longer a radio astronomer or an Arecibo user, and my ability to advocate for the observatory and its then $7 million-a-year budget was limited. I knew something of the telescope’s scientific capabilities, but not in the detailed, forceful way of others who argued for the importance of their preferred facilities. And I thought it was important to be impartial, to be a good soldier for the astronomy enterprise. The future demanded that we sacrifice the past. In that context, our eventual recommendation that Arecibo should continue to be funded at all felt like a major victory.

In retrospect, what was really happening was that we were slowly strangling the observatory. Its budget was going to be cut by another $2 million a year, severely limiting its ability to upgrade its aging infrastructure or invest in new instruments, and easing its slide into obsolescence. Lacking the courage to do it ourselves, we would let another committee apply the final push.

Somehow, the observatory soldiered on, in part because it had identified new sources of funding. Crucially, NASA, once a regular contributor to the observatory’s budget, reinvested in the facility after Congress passed a bill compelling the agency to find and track at least 90 percent of all near-Earth objects larger than 450 feet across. Near-Earth objects—asteroids and comets whose orbits bring them uncomfortably close to Earth’s—constitute a real threat to our civilization (just ask the dinosaurs), and the bill was an attempt to organize our defenses against a potentially devastating impact. 

In 2010, Arecibo, whose radar capabilities have been used for decades to measure the shape, rotation, surface features, and trajectories of asteroids, received an injection of $2 million, an amount that increased to $3.5 million in 2012. It seemed that despite astronomy’s progressive disengagement from the observatory, its contributions to planetary defense might be enough to keep it operating.

Management changes at Arecibo also signaled that the observatory still had a future. In 2011, SRI International—the storied nonprofit research organization that developed the first computer mouse, inkjet printing, and the voice assistant Siri—became the observatory’s manager, sharing those duties with two other organizations, including the Universidad Metropolitana in San Juan. Until this arrangement, a Puerto Rican organization had never formally been a part of the observatory's oversight.

While SRI was doing its utmost to keep Arecibo relevant, however, the NSF was, in the name of due diligence, actively undermining it. It published a 300-page report that laid out the cost of removing the observatory and restoring the site to its previous state, a requirement if the facility had to be decommissioned. To the observatory’s supporters, the costs of decommissioning were being deliberately and severely underestimated, a way of rendering this decision more palatable.

The NSF also announced that the next management organization would have to accept a budget that would shrink even further, to just $2 million a year by 2022. In the fall of 2015, the observatory’s director, Robert Kerr, a longtime champion of the facility, quit after falling out with both the NSF and SRI. Perhaps unsurprisingly, SRI did not apply to renew its contract when it expired.

And so, in the summer of 2017—by which point I was a veteran of numerous committees—I headed once more to Washington, to sit around a table 1,500 miles from the coquís and discuss in dispassionate terms the dismal future of a place I love. This time I came home feeling optimistic. The University of Central Florida, an unexpected candidate to manage the observatory, had made a potentially game-changing bid. The university would effectively turn Arecibo into a Florida-owned facility, making the state responsible for covering the observatory’s operations and maintenance costs.

It was risky, because the university had no experience managing an observatory the size of Arecibo, and no real tradition of radio astronomy research. More importantly, the Florida legislature would have to agree to this plan, but if it worked, the observatory would finally have a solid financial base with which to plan for its long-term future.

The downsides? They were the same as if we did not gamble: An observatory with little to no astronomy funding, and therefore little to no astronomy research. Or worse, a shuttered observatory. Ultimately, and to my surprise, the NSF selected the Florida proposal.

Then in September 2017, Hurricane Maria, a category 5 storm at its peak with winds as high as 175 mph, smashed into Puerto Rico, causing $90 billion in damages across the island. Superficially at least, the observatory was lucky. A 100 meter antenna was ripped off the platform, destroying several hundred of the dish’s panels when it fell. For a while, some equipment in the valley underneath the dish was accessible only by kayak. Still, the telescope was collecting data nine days after Maria passed, before anyone could make a cell phone call to San Juan, even as some of the staff at Arecibo also acted as first responders, distributing 14,000 gallons of drinking water a day.

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Six months later, with the island still reeling, the University of Central Florida took over Arecibo. That June, a panel of scientists appointed by the NSF selected a proposal to build a new, cryogenically cooled, one-of-a-kind receiver for the telescope, capable of mapping the wisps of hydrogen gas around nearby galaxies and of detecting new millisecond pulsars, neutron stars rotating thousands of times a second. Scheduled to be installed at the observatory in 2022, this new instrument demonstrated that for some astronomers, at least, the radio telescope had an important part to play in the future of the field. In August 2019, NSF released $12.3 million to make repairs and improvements post-Maria, and NASA awarded UCF a four-year, $19 million grant to find more near-Earth objects. Optimism was once again in the air.

Then, this past August, one of the 3-inch-thick metal cables running from a corner of the telescope platform to one of the three concrete towers from which it was suspended failed. The cable fell hundreds of feet, slashing the dish below. Why it failed is still unclear, but the pounding from a succession of ever-more powerful hurricanes, combined with years of underinvestment in the observatory’s infrastructure, couldn’t have helped. Still, the August accident initially seemed like just a piece of bad luck, something that could be overcome with enough ingenuity—and money. Replacing the broken cable and the 250 or so panels it tore through was at least, relative to recovering from Maria, classic engineering work.

On November 6, while a replacement cable was still making its way to Puerto Rico, another cable linking the platform to the tower broke. The NSF, advised by several engineering firms and the Army Corps of Engineers, deemed any repair work too dangerous. The stability of the platform and of its support towers was compromised. The platform was going to collapse, and the towers might come down too. It was just a matter of time.

Around 7 am on December 1, one or more of the other support cables, which had been fraying, also failed. As the platform came free, finalizing its divorce from one tower, it snapped off the top of that tower and then the two others, swinging down several hundred feet until it smashed into the edge of the dish and the hillside above. The Gregorian, the dome installed under the platform in 1996 to protect the instruments, plunged through the bottom of the dish and settled into the greenery below. It looked like the telescope had been bombed. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Today, while some scientific facilities at Arecibo are operational and even collecting data, the observatory itself is closed, and its future is entirely unclear. One thing we can be certain of, however: This time, whatever happens, the radio telescope as I knew it won't be coming back.

After the platform’s collapse, the internet was quickly awash in videos of the disaster, which I still can’t bring myself to watch. Instead, I cast my mind back to December 2019, when my wife Robin and I took our children, Camilo and Nuria, to Puerto Rico for the first time. We went to see my grandparents’ abandoned house and to the cemetery where they are both now buried. Having fulfilled those family obligations, we drove the narrow roads to the observatory.

Anish Roshi, the observatory’s new head astronomer, met us at the gate and kindly offered to show us around. We stopped in the control room, where we ran into Ángel Vázquez, the head of telescope operations, whom I had last seen 25 years before. Somehow I forgot to take a picture with Vázquez, but I do have pictures of the two kids sitting at one of the old control consoles, looking suitably unimpressed.

Roshi offered to take us below the dish. Nuria did not want to wear a hardhat, so Camilo and I followed the winding path down until we were standing under the telescope, where I had never been. I thought back to my last visit to the observatory, twenty years before. I had flown down to see my 89-year-old abuela Carmen, and finding myself overwhelmed by her needs, convinced my father to join me. One day we drove to the observatory, and I took him, proud as could be, on a behind-the-scenes tour. As Roshi explained how a radio telescope works to my 6-year-old, I looked up through the hole in the center of the dish. I could see the platform way up in the distance, silhouetted against the infinite sky. When we left, I was full of joy.

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