Adios Arecibo: Project Phoenix Moves On

Mar. 11, 2004
by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer

There are no good good-byes. Separations that warrant recognition are inevitably edged with sadness. So it is with bittersweet poignancy that I, as a member of the Project Phoenix team, now depart the Arecibo Observatory at the conclusion of our final run.

Project Phoenix began in early February 1995, when the 64-meter Parkes radio telescope in Australia was pointed at the star nu and it ended Friday, March 5 here in Puerto Rico with the its last observation, the star HD169882, a G7V type star about 88 light years away. Phoenix has thoroughly examined over 700 nearby sun-like stars in nearly ten years of observing at some of the world's greatest radio telescopes including Green Bank, West Virginia and Jodrell Bank, England, as well as here at Arecibo.

There are many reasons for this rueful farewell. Ill miss the ambience, for its like none other in the world. For half my life, Ive known this place and have had the opportunity to work here -- at first to study galaxies, and then as part of the SETI Institutes experiments. The sounds, smells, and vistas of the Observatory are as familiar to me as Grand Central is to a Manhattan commuter. Such sensual inputs, when tied to a place that has been a source of pleasure, elicit what we call "nostalgia." Like the memory of a childhood friend, the ambience of Arecibo causes me to smile inside. It always will.

The physical plant of this telescope is unique, but the thing Ill miss most -- what we will all miss most -- is the staff.

Never again will I be greeted by Rays "hola" and two-stage handshake when I enter the observing room, a welcome Ive received every time Ive come. Its the end for long nights with the telescope operators the guys who share every shift, every day. The operators are friendlier than the best of uncles, and matchless in their knowledge of how we can pull data from the skies. Ill miss discussing Puerto Rican society with Willie Torres, helping Gerson with his calculus homework, or merely ruminating on life in Chicago with Willie Portalatin.

The pleasurable respites in the cafeteria are history, too. The staff there long ago learned my tastes, and know what I want even before I order. The attempts by the new guy, Ramon, to improve my Spanish vocabulary are at an end. Ill no longer converse with Carmen, from housekeeping, whos always keen to hear how I really am. And, of course, Ill miss the many members of the scientific and administrative staff who, time and again, have willingly agreed to interviews for the Institutes radio show, for an article, or to give their expert input to a new observing idea.

Even visitors quickly note the openness and sympathy of the people who work here. You cannot pass anyone in the halls or walkways of this place without hearing a hello or catching an acknowledging wave or wag of the head. I note this fact not as a gratuitous compliment to a helpful staff: I do so with true wonder and gratitude, because it is far from ordinary.

A few years ago, while back in Virginia, I made a detour in my rental car to visit the apartment where I grew up. It didnt look quite the same, but the resonance with my soul was deep, for this was, and is, the place of my dreams and the source of so much of who I am. It is the factory in which I was assembled, the potters wheel on which I was shaped.

Arecibo, too, resides deep within me and in anyone who has spent much time here. It is where we have experienced adventure and excitement. It is where we have not just worked, but lived. It is wired into the soft circuitry of our brains and our being.

Today is typically warm and sunny, and Im on my way to the San Juan Airport, on the coastal plain east of the city -- 58 miles from the bumpy, forested karst of Arecibo. I check the rear-view mirror briefly, and see the familiar telescope towers dropping below the trees. I try not to think that I might not come back here. That would be too hard.

Surely, surely, this cant be the final goodbye.