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Seeing on Mount Graham

The University of Arizona's telescopes help astronomers 'see' the universe. But the views of Mount Graham are as varied as the players in an ongoing battle for power.

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The Jesuit priest is giving a speech to the Knights of Columbus at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Tucson. A woman in the audience asks if he thinks the environmental destruction on Earth could be causing sun spots. He smiles and replies in his English accent: "You could throw a thousand hydrogen bombs at the sun and it would happily swallow them up."

The priest tells the audience the sun is so huge and awesome that whatever happens on Earth is unlikely to affect it. He says the sun will eventually explode and most likely destroy all life on the tiny planet Earth.

As Jesuits before him for 500 years, Father Dr. Chris Corbally is an astronomer. He's the director of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT), dubbed the "Pope Scope."

Corbally is just one of the figures in the heady mix of interests that swirl around Mount Graham, a peak in Southern Arizona's Pinaleño Mountains that rises along the edge of the Gila River valley near Safford like a homing beacon for all the emotions that also rise at its mention.

If Mount Graham is a mirror for the bitter struggles that occur in the American landscape between development and the environment, faith and science, native and European cultures, there are also two giant actual 8.4-meter mirrors soon to be trucked up the coiling road to the $100 million Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) project

In addition to the VATT and the LBT, the University of Arizona's 8.6-acre site on the mountain also hosts the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Telescope, which observes by the use of radio signals.

Mount Graham rises 10,711 feet from a sparsely populated patch of the Arizona desert near Safford, about 115 miles east of Tucson. There, wiry cyclists pedal up the steep switchbacks at the annual Mount Graham Hill Climb. Hunters walk the valleys and canyons that wrinkle out from the top, returning home with deer. Gila Valley families escape the heat of the summer to the dozens of cabins located on the east slope in the fragrant alpine forest. Part way up the vertically layered wilderness of spruce and fir trees is the Angle family apple orchard, where black bears--which populate Mount Graham more densely than any other place in Arizona--rip out parts of the irrigation system in search of water during droughts.

And it is near the summit of Mount Graham where astronomers from far-flung nations study the wonders of the universe at the chilly summit,


ASTRONOMERS GROW accustomed to the sense of infinity that causes fatigue in the minds of the rest of us as we struggle to imagine some kind of closure or edges to the universe. "You get used to it," says VATT director Corbally, who keeps an office at UA's Steward Observatory.

Perhaps that's why they choose to be astronomers--to make some measurable sense of the universe's contents.

Since the word catholic means universal, it is interesting that the Catholic Church uses VATT is its object of collusion between faith and science.

In operation since 1993, the VATT continues a long tradition of Catholic interest in the heavens dating to Pope Gregory XIII's 16th-century edict that the church's astronomers and mathematicians revise the Julian calendar that had been in use since 45 B.C. The subsequent Gregorian calendar corrected the error in the Julian calendar that had caused holy days to slowly go out of sync with their respective seasons over the years.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII formally established the Vatican observatory known as the Specola Vaticana, in part to counter accusations that the church was anti-science. After all, it was the Catholic Church that locked up Galileo for spreading the heresy that the world was round.

Originally located on a hillside behind St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican astronomers studied the heavens until light pollution began to blot out good "seeing" of the fainter stars. In 1935, Pope Pius XI moved the Specola Vaticana to the Pope's summer residence at Castel Gandolfo in the town of Alban, about 15 miles from Rome, which was also rendered ineffective by Rome's encroaching light pollution.

Finally, the Vatican and its loyal order of stargazers, the Society of Jesus, found a new home for their heavenly study of the heavens through brother astronomers at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory.

Thus, the Pope's eye on the heavens sits upon Mount Graham--and where the church's religious values are being challenged by the very existence of the Vatican's telescope.


OLA CASSADORE-DAVIS, who turns 80 this January and serves as chair of the Apache Survival Coalition, can see the white box-like LBT structure from the reservation.

Her father, Alfred Cassadore, was a spiritual leader and chief of his Apache clan. When he died in 1952, Ola's brother Phillip followed in her father's footsteps as a medicine man until his own death in 1986.

The mother of 7, grandmother of 15 and great grandmother of several more, Cassadore-Davis is a respected voice in the tribe for keeping the Apache culture alive.

She watches with great sadness as traditional Apache religious beliefs are eroded.

She sees the younger people grow further and further from the teaching of the tribes that roamed the desert before the white man arrived.

She remembers listening to her father telling people about the Apaches' sacred relationship with Mount Graham around a campfire on trips to the north side of the mountain during the 1930s.

"My father said he wanted us to know it was really a sacred mountain and to hold all our prayers up there. This is how strongly he believed in it. We have the Sunrise Dance and the Crown Dance all come from Mount Graham."

Cassadore-Davis says there are 32 Apache ways of our prayer that come from Mount Graham. "It goes from our ancestors to my father's mother and they were telling us these things. It is very important to have a lot of respect for that mountain. Don't ever misuse it unless you really have to."

Ola said the biggest affront to Apache spiritual beliefs on Mount Graham was the metal content of the telescopes.

"When we pray we take off our rings, earrings, bracelets and watches. We take them off and put them aside. Those telescopes are metal in the same spot where Geronimo and chiefs were praying. The medicine men always say the prayers don't go through to our Creator because of the metal in the buildings."

"That's why we don't agree with what they are doing up there. It is very bad for us. Sometimes I get so mad and I talk to the telescope people and I say: Have I spoke Apache to you guys about Mount Graham? You all don't understand what I am saying? I speak English so you all can understand me what I am talking about. They don't listen; they are ignoring us--they don't really care."

Cassadore-Davis speaks sincerely in her traditional beliefs. She believes the Creator will eventually render the telescopes useless, in his own time, with or without her help.

"Just wait and see. This is a very bad place. There are a lot of things going on that they never tell anybody. Bad things are coming to them. It is not coming today or tomorrow. Mount Graham, he works for himself."

As one of the spiritual leaders of her people, Cassadore-Davis is thankful to churches like the Assembly of God for helping free her people from the ravages of alcohol, but also watches with sadness as traditional Apache beliefs are eroded by outside religions. "They done good for alcohol, but they teach against our tradition."

The annual Mount Graham Sacred Run, organized by San Carlos Apaches to honor the spiritual importance of Mount Graham, is being conducted incorrectly, Cassadore-Davis contends.

"You should start the Sacred Run at the top of the mountain," she said.

She remembers years ago during a Sacred Run when she ran half a mile. She said the runners could use medicine to "shrink the distance" between points on the Sacred Run.

"That is how Geronimo did it. He shrank the distance."

Cassadore-Davis says the secret to her good health and long life is praying. "I pray for my life. In my clan, my mother's oldest sister died at age 107. My father's oldest sister died at 105. My blood is that blood."

Ola's husband, Michael Davis, executive director for the coalition, said there were four sacred shrines around the mountain.

"When they were digging the power lines on the mountain, they came very close to one of the shrines."


SINCE THE 1980s, environmentalists have made common cause with the Apache people against the telescopes on Mount Graham.

A leading voice among them is Dr. Robin Silver of the Center for Biological Diversity, a Phoenix emergency room doctor who volunteers his time for environmental causes.

"It's depressing that so many cool places have been destroyed," he said.

The anti-telescope consensus is that UA arrogantly shoved its way to the top of Mount Graham, circumvented a plethora of national environmental laws through cuddly relationships with politicians, trampled Apache religious freedom by desecrating a sacred site and did it all for all the filthy lucre of military contracts, government grants and the self-aggrandizement of Steward Observatory.

"This controversy is not going to go away because the project is based on deceit and cunning," Silver said.

"This is like a baseball game and it's like the third or fourth inning. This is not going to go away. The question is: how much money do you pour down a rathole?"

Dr. Bob Weizman, conservation chairperson of the Maricopa Audubon Society, concurs with Silver.

"UA's spending millions on lobbying and litigating exemptions for all U.S. cultural and environmental laws is one of the most disgraceful chapters in the history of higher education in this nation," he said.

"The Mount Graham project shows the outright contempt professors bent on self-promotion can have for human rights and the environment of our planet Earth. Mount Graham's headstrong astronomers can't stop to look down to their feet and see the earth that they are destroying. UA's own studies show the project is the worst kind of science joke and bonzo science. The LBT is a $100 million white elephant that will never see better than a cross-eyed kinkajou," Weizman said.


STEWARD OBSERVATORY Principal Engineer and seeing expert Dan McKenna thinks otherwise. "The proof is in the results," McKenna said. "The results we get on Mount Graham put us at the top of observation sites in North America."

"The only existing optical scope on the mountain right now is the VATT and we obtain arc second images from the telescope under the tree layer. It's well known the tree layer creates an intense thin layer of turbulence. We're already getting arc-2 images."

In the nomenclature of seeing engineers, that's 20/20 vision.

McKenna uses an instrument called a SCIDAR, a French invention that stands for Scintillation (Twinkling) Detection and Ranging. "The SCIDAR uses the twinkling of the starlight to measure the optically significant turbulence."

"We're getting images that are better than most West Coast observatories. I question if we can find any site better. The sighting of a telescope is based on the scientific merits versus the physical difficulties in supporting that site."

"If you look at a map around here, you see Mount Graham is a little higher than Mount Hopkins. For what we plan to do with the scope, the humidity is not a major drawback. With global climatic change you don't know in the next 10 years if one site is going to become cloudier than the next."

McKenna thinks it's fortunate that the Vatican built its observatory first to enable understanding of the atmosphere in order to design equipment capable of handling that atmosphere.

"We are attempting to understand the relation between the three-dimensional weather and the quality of the optical atmosphere, as viewed from the site."

"The greens want the same thing that we do--a pristine environment. Disturbance is not good for the light. My belief is that all mountaintops are sacred and unique and should be protected to the utmost. There is absolutely no question there, especially in an environment like Arizona. As we attempt toe excel in our efforts, every time we do it better. "


IN OCTOBER, the University of Arizona's Dr. John M. Hill, director of the LBT project, hosted a barbecue for the LBT builders in the dining facility adjacent to astronomer's quarters at the LBT building on Mount Graham.

Between bratwurst and potato salad Dr. Hill also greeted a group of amateur astronomers from the Sierra Vista Astronomy Club and answered a few questions.

Hill avoids the controversies of Mount Graham by staying focused on the project. "My job is to build the telescope," he said.

"The astronomer doesn't have to be here," Hill said, because of a 10 megabytes-per-second high-speed data line that will enable astronomers from throughout the world to download data from their home countries.

International astronomers will submit their proposals months in advance, and, when the seeing is ideal for their purpose, the building's shell will bisect slowly as the massive hydraulic rotating system pivots the pair of 18-ton mirrors to offer what Hill and Steward Observatory believes will be one the finest views of the cosmos anywhere on Earth, rivaling even in its clarity and resolution of the space-based Hubble.

Mount Graham is isolated from centers of light pollution such as Tucson, where ordinary city, billboard and household lights blot out the night sky.

The University of Arizona has persuaded the city of Safford to put ordinances in place restricting the use of certain kinds of bright lighting, in order that the telescopes will have better seeing in the night.

Giant pieces of fabricated steel have recently, laboriously arrived on the mountaintop. Fabricated in Italy, the carefully machined steel pieces will assemble to form the base upon which the two highly-polished 8.4-meter mirrors will rest.

The mirrors are being built at the Steward Observatory's Tucson mirror lab using a honeycomb technique and smoothed to a millionth of an inch.

The LBT evolved from an earlier University of Arizona scope on Mount Hopkins, Hill explains, called the MMT, or Multiple Mirror Telescope.

It was a photograph of the MMT on the cover of Physics Today that first inspired Hill, a chemistry and physics graduate of Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Penn., to come to Tucson in 1979.

Now he runs the LBT project, the successor to the MMT and, when it's complete in the fall of 2005, the world's largest telescope on a single mounting.

The MMT was built from six surplus U.S. Air Force mirrors, arranged in the shape of a hexagon, which constituted a breakthrough in the multiplicity of sharpness magnification.

"It worked even better than they thought it would and planted the seeds for the LBT and future telescopes," Hill said.

The success of the MMT, which multiplied the power of six 1.8-meter mirrors into the collecting area of a 4.5-meter telescope, paved the way for the creation of a UA mirror lab and carved the technological path for both the VATT and the LBT.

The LBT's binocular configuration will make the two 8.4-meter mirrors work at the resolution of a 22.8 meter mirror.

Hill gives a lot of credit to UA astronomy professor Dr. Roger Angel, who is now designing telescopes that make the LBT look small. "Astronomy is a long-term investment that society makes," Hill says.

While the short-term gains may not be easy to notice, long term, Hill says, the telescopes satisfy curiosity about "what's out there" and teach humans new things that sometimes can take a century to pay off. "Astronomers in the early 1900s were studying the sun and saw a new emission line. So they invented physics, which led to the laser 50 years later. When laser was invented, people thought it wasn't practical, but now the scanner at the grocery store is run by a laser. The mouse on our computers are run by lasers. It took a century to get from the sun to the mouse."


STEWARD OBSERVATORY associate Director Buddy Powell says environmentalist claims that other universities pulled out of the LBT project because of poor seeing are simply not true. He thinks they pulled out because they were scared of a public relations nightmare caused by the protesters--not by poor science.

"(U.S. Rep. Jim) Kolbe thought it was terrible that Southeast Arizona was losing high-tech jobs, so the Arizona Idaho Conservation Act legislation directed the Secretary of Agriculture to issue a permit to continue with the observatory quickly and that's the facts of life," said Powell, who has been at Steward for 17 years. Steward Observatory operates the research for UA, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University.

While environmental groups say dozens of universities pulled out from the Mount Graham telescope projects because it was a poor scientific site, Powell says they "were never in to begin with."

"I bought a Toyota the other day, but I also considered a Chevrolet. I didn't pull out from Chevrolet. I considered. There is a significant difference."

Like the others, Powell is a veteran of dealing with the politics of Mount Graham. Like McKenna, he believes in the good seeing at Mount Graham.

"There is absolutely no question there is good seeing. The Vatican has proved that in optical and the Submillimeter proved that. Mount Graham is the only place on Earth where observations have been made at 870 gigahertz and it has been attempted at other observatories."

"To do that you need an outstanding dry sky. Mount Graham is such a good quality site and has such outstanding seeing that I and others consider it a national treasure. We know it's an outstanding site for astronomical research. It is the best site for astro research in the continental United States bar none. That's from examining the data from the telescopes that are out there now and seeing the actual results."

As for obtaining military research money, Powell affirms a recent $35 million contract with Lockheed Martin to use the Steward Observatory's Mirror Lab to test satellites before they are launched. "The satellite wants to look to see where to position itself and uses the stars to find out where it's located. The system we are doing for Lockheed Martin makes it possible to test satellites before they are launched into outer space."

Powell says he has taken dozens of native American elders and shaman to Mount Graham. "I have shown them what we are doing and why, and asked if anything there was offensive to their religion and culture. To a person. they say I am not doing anything wrong. Makes me feel good."

Powell said UA is in the process of setting up a formal cultural advisory council. "I would hope by the first of the year we would have that in place," he said. He acknowledges a lot of people oppose the project. "I continue to listen to what they are saying, and they are saying do this with dignity and respect."


TUCSON'S DWIGHT METZGER, a printer and community activist, feels strongly enough about the Apaches and their cultural heritage that he traveled to Minnesota in October to join the protest of the University of Minnesota's inclusion into UA's Mount Graham telescope projects.

Metzger said Mount Graham is living thing. "The destruction at the top of the mountain destroys the relationship between the Apache's prayers with their Creator," he said.

Metzger was among a group of native Americans, including San Carlos Apaches, in an October protest outside a meeting of the University of Minnesota board of regents. The action was designed to influence the regents to keep the University of Minnesota from joining the LBT telescope project as a partner.

Although the University of Minnesota joined the project anyway, the protest group raised awareness of Mount Graham as an issue. "A large national coalition recognizes that Mount Graham needs to be protected and that this assault needs to stop," Metzger said. "The Apaches want the telescopes removed and are backed by the National Council of Churches of Christ, which represents 49 million people."

Metzger says UA's Mount Graham site is all about research money and defense department grants. "This project has sucked more money out of the university's general fund than anything,"

On the other side of the ideological spectrum is Safford's Ed Sawyer, former president of the Arizona Senate and former chairman of the board of Discovery Park, a local Safford attraction and visitors center for tours to the Mount Graham telescopes.

"I think when they get the big LBT scope going, it's going to be terrific on the tourism coming into Graham County. We can use the money."

Sawyer, 75, helped get the first state money appropriated to the telescopes when he served on the appropriations years ago. "I got it appropriated to that as a line item so the money would go directly to the scopes. It wasn't much but it was a starter," he recalls.

"The biggest thing on this is when you get something like that, the whole legislature has to approve it. At that time, the legislature was approving what they were doing on the mountain."


IN THE STRUGGLE FOR Mount Graham, irony looms as large as the mountain itself. Within the struggle itself, higher purposes may actually be achieved. While the Catholic Church helps lead the charge for science, Apaches pray for the survival of their own religion.

When the 17th century Italian astronomer Galileo was placed under house arrest by the Catholic Church for publishing correct science that challenged established Church dogma, he recanted his belief that the earth revolved around the sun. But he is reported to have whispered under his breath, "et si muove," which in English means "yet it moves."

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