The Sciences

Here Comes the Sun: A Tale of Two Telescopes

The Orbiting Solar Laboratory began its curious life in 1965; it's a mission NASA may wish to forget.

By Dana MackenzieApr 9, 2004 5:00 AM


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Editor’s note: This story was originally meant to accompany our May feature “Here Comes the Sun.” It appears for the first time on our Web site.

If the rescue of SOHO in 1998 shows NASA at its best, the story of another solar mission shows a side of NASA that the agency would happily forget. Over a 25-year period, NASA spent $53 million and an estimated 1,000 person-years on a space telescope that not only never got off the ground, it never even got off the drawing board.

The Orbiting Solar Laboratory began its curious life in 1965, when two astronomers at Caltech, Harold Zirin and Robert Howard, proposed a solar telescope for the Skylab missions. Although Skylab did eventually carry a solar telescope, it looked only at the sun’s corona, and Zirin and Howard wanted to look at the surface. The idea was in some ways too good for its own good. Other solar physicists wanted to add more capabilities and make the telescope bigger, to the point where it would no longer fit on Skylab.

But the idea didn’t die. It was such a good idea that it kept growing and growing. It was rechristened the Solar Optical Telescope, then the High-Resolution Solar Observatory, and finally the Orbiting Solar Laboratory. Its budget escalated from $25 million in 1976 to $360 million in 1985, and then to $811 million in 1991, when the project was finally canceled. It had become enmeshed in bureaucracy, and most of the scientists who had originally pushed for it gave up long before the axe fell.

In 1995, with the launch of SOHO, the European Space Agency (ESA) succeeded where NASA had failed. Though the two agencies scrupulously adhere to the language that SOHO is a “project of international cooperation,” and NASA has indeed provided the launch and operations facilities, the mission was originally conceived in Europe. The project came to fruition largely because of the visionary leadership of Roger Bonnet, the science director of ESA, who made it the first of that agency’s “cornerstone missions.”

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