Arecibo Diary: Fourth Entry: Life In the Trenches

Thursday, October 19, 2000 1:47 a.m.
by Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer

The guard smiled as he handed me the key: "You’ll be in Jodie Foster’s room."

Indeed, I am. During the filming of Contact in 1997, the observatory offered Foster the plushest digs available -- a commodious (by local standards) bedroom in Family Unit No. 1, the largest of a dozen billets provided to visiting scientists. Now it’s mine. For years I’ve suffered the usual observatory accommodations: dorm rooms with Alcatraz-like architecture, or plywood bungalows of the type usually ransacked by bears. But apparently I have "arrived." I’m sleeping in the best bed in the place. Jodie, I note, has moved on.

Arecibo observing runs normally last a few weeks. For the Project Phoenix team, it’s a reclusive existence. Working, eating, sleeping and socializing all take place on this island within an island. Our horizons end at the observatory gate.

The Jodie Foster bedroom

At the south end of the facility is the telescope, hunkered down in its mammoth limestone sink hole. The control room and most of the engineering facilities are in a nondescript, concrete structure that faces the telescope. Behind it looms a multi-story building that’s home to the scientific and administrative staff. From these twin edifices, a long staircase descends to the cafeteria. I remark on the stairs as they are, in fact, remarkable.

Two-thirds of the way from the top, there’s one step with a rise about two inches higher than all the others. A step with personality. A step out of step with its more regular step brothers. Every visitor can count on tripping over this irregularity at least two times a day, despite the fact that it is painted red, marked with signs and written up in all the guidebooks.

The cafeteria, I am gratified to say, has improved. It has been enlarged, modernized and enriched with an imposing gazebo. The food, too, is no longer the butt of easy jokes. There was a time when menus were superfluous -- chicken and rice were as inevitable as hockey fights. However, when the last island bird was converted from avian to entrée, the cafeteria regrouped and diversified. Ungulates dominate the offerings, and although some of the meat has been cooked longer than the lifetime of the animal involved, it’s usually tasty and reliably filling.

The exterior of the Arecibo cafeteria

It’s the rainy season here, and every afternoon. Regular as the backbeat in a rap track, thunderclouds huddle up from the south. For an hour, the view outside resembles an alien planet. The telescope disappears in dark blue sheets of rain, while bolts of lightning stab the hills. Occasionally, a discharge will strike an arrester on the control building. The overhead lamps flicker, there’s a loud crack and strobe lights flash. It’s as if a Cardassian phaser has hit the Enterprise.

A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall

But now it’s early evening, and the peace of observing has returned. The Phoenix team, splayed informally around the room, has laid in a hefty supply of candy. Dirty coffee mugs are scattered like abandoned cars on a side table. There’s a discussion underway about the failure to find Pioneer 10, the two-decade-old spacecraft that is now one and a half times farther from us than Pluto. In the past, a daily check of Pioneer 10’s weak signal has served as a reassuring end-to-end test of the Phoenix system. But Pioneer’s 2-watt transmitter has not been heard. It seems that NASA gave the spacecraft a kick in July, redirecting the transmitting antenna so that it is now aligned with a far part of Earth’s orbit.

No one is demoralized by the absence of Pioneer 10’s comforting squeal. Several times a night, The System lights up with a possible detection, and then proves it to be a terrestrial satellite or a local radar. The System works. Now all we need is a signal from another world. Jodie, come back.