Seielstad reflects on tenure at Observatory

George Seielstad

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

As part of its 20th anniversary celebration of the dedication of the Green Bank Telescope, the Green Bank Observatory is turning back the hands of time to reflect on the people who were integral in the addition of the GBT to the numerous radio telescopes at the Green Bank facility.

Science center manager Amanda White recently interviewed former site director Dr. George Seielstad, who was at Green Bank when it was part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Seielstad received his physics degree at Dartmouth College and went to graduate school at the California Institute of Technology where he discovered a love of astronomy.

“Two Australians came to Caltech to start a program there which succeeded marvelously, and it was the most exciting thing I could see at Caltech, so that became what my thesis research focused on,” he said.

Seielstad began his radio astronomy career at the Caltech Owens Valley Radio Observatory, and that is where he was working when he received a call from Green Bank.

“I loved it, but then, Mort Roberts was looking for a director at the NRAO in Green Bank, and he offered me the job,” Seielstad said. “I thought, ‘You know, that would be interesting to be director,’ and there I was.”

In 1983, Seielstad moved to Green Bank and was director during one of the most historic events to take place at the facility – an event that directly led to the addition of the GBT to the site.

On November 16, 1988, in the middle of the night, the 300-foot telescope – then the world’s largest moveable telescope – collapsed onto its observation building – leaving nothing but a pile of rubble.

At the time of the collapse, Seielstad, Jim Condon and John Broderick were using the telescope for a survey, which, of course, they were unable to complete.

Seielstad received a phone call about the telescope and, at first, misunderstood what he was hearing.

“It was unusual because it must have been near midnight and it was a phone call from Fred Crews who managed the facilities on the site, superbly, for many years,” he recalled. “He said, ‘Telescope down,’ and you don’t think the worst. I interpreted that to mean, perhaps, the receiver was failing or one of the spectrometers, and we needed to fix it the next morning.

“‘No, no, no,’ he said,” Seielstad continued. “‘It fell down. It collapsed,’ and I could hardly believe it. I rushed down to the telescope. It had collapsed. It was a pile of rubble. Inside the control room where Greg Monk was the telescope operator – he was not injured fortunately and he was not there. One beam fell through the roof and ceiling of the control room. He escaped and went to the 140-foot which was the wise thing to do.”

While he was happy no one was injured during the event, Seielstad went immediately from relief to despair as the realization of what had just occurred sunk in.

“I saw the wreckage, and it was a sinking feeling,” he said. “It was crushing actually, very depressing, to realize it was gone forever, because if you took one look – this is not something you repair. It’s a pile of rubble. It was shocking. It was the end of the telescope.”

Then, the worry set in. Seielstad worried about the future of the facility and the more than 100 employees who relied on the cutting edge science done at the NRAO with the telescope which was now gone.

As he was trying to prepare for the future, Seielstad had to face the onslaught of questions as news traveled about the fallen telescope.

“A newsperson called me – it must have been six in the morning – and he asked me about the collapse of the 300-foot and I thought, ‘How did you know it collapsed?’” he said. “That was just a preview of things to come. Suddenly there was huge interest, internationally – radio stations, TV stations. Some flew down in helicopters to photograph and put it on the evening news. I got a call from Japan and was being asked about the collapse.”

The collapse was metaphorically heard around the world and was even the subject of tabloids declaring the telescope was “Zapped” by aliens.

Seielstad answered all the questions he could, but at the same time, he was ready to move on and wanted to focus on the future of the facility.

“Once you realize, ‘okay, it’s gone, I’m not going to spend a lot of time thinking about what happened in the past,’” he said. “It’s over. Right away, [I was thinking] what are we going to do? How are we going to survive, and what’s our next step?”

Luckily, that answer came quite quickly. Senator Jay Rockfeller – who had a home in nearby Dunmore – happened to be in the county at the time of the collapse. He contacted Seielstad and wanted to brainstorm ideas for the future.

Senator Robert C. Byrd soon joined in the effort of finding something new for the NRAO, and the trio had a meeting with the director of the National Science Foundation, director of the NRAO and Associated Universities, Inc.

“Things unfolded from there and it was great the path that was eventually followed,” Seielstad said. “It was important for everybody to realize there was a future. It was great hope for the future. We had to think big, and we had an opportunity to do so.”

At first, the NSF was reluctant to build anew, but was swayed by the collective involved, including Senator Byrd, for whom the new telescope was eventually named.

“There was no way to pick up pieces from the old one and move on,” Seielstad said. “It was time to start over and the good news is – we were able to – in a spectacular way.”

Plans were underway for the next big thing and it came to fruition – The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope – the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope.

“You don’t just want to say ‘Let’s build another thing like everything that’s happened before,’ because it’s like going around on a merry-go-round and you’re only going to go by that brass ring one time, so you better grab it and go for it,” Seielstad said.

“In retrospect, I’m happy to have been part of that process which was challenging,” he continued. “Nobody just hands you the money. You better have a pretty powerful case and sell it convincingly and, in retrospect, that happened and I’m grateful it did.”

The GBT began observations on August 22, 2000 and continues to be used for large and small discoveries.

“It was a very all-out effort to say ‘This is something great for a lot of people, so let’s do it,’ and we did,” Seielstad said.

Seielstad left Green Bank in 1993 and joined the staff at the University of North Dakota where he was assistant dean for academic affairs in The Odegard School and professor in the department of space studies. In 1994, he was named associate dean of the school and director of the Earth System Science Institute. In 1997, he became The Oliver Benediktson professor of astrophysics and in 2006, he was named senior advisor to the President of the University of North Dakota.

Seielstad has published three books and more than 60 articles.

He is currently chairman of the executive management board for NASAs Deep Space Network.

As someone who looked into the darkness of a great loss and came out of it with new purpose, Seielstad has words of wisdom for those who feel they are facing a project or task that seems impossible to complete.

“Persevere,” he said. “People will gather around you and follow you and help to pick you up.

“If you’re really dedicated to the cause and you have to make this happen, you just never give up. You just decide – ‘We’re going to do this’ – and other people say, ‘Who’s this nut with this crazy idea,’ but eventually someone will say, ‘That’s not so bad. Why don’t we try that?’ and then another one and another one and pretty soon someone will say, ‘If you really are committed to this…’

“Don’t let up when you feel it’s too hard.

“Forget the naysayers and just keep building a base of people who buy into ‘Let’s do it, you guys. Let’s figure it out,’” he continued. “No one will hand you anything, and every time you propose something, there will be people scratching their head and there will be a lot of reasons why it shouldn’t be done or couldn’t be done, but if you believe in it, don’t give up, and it will happen.”

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