So Long, Arecibo

Arecibo Observatory in November 2016.

When we decided to take our honeymoon at a resort in Puerto Rico, I hoped beyond hope that I could convince my wife to indulge my nerdery for me. The Arecibo Observatory wasn’t far from where staying (nothing is on Puerto Rico), and I very much wanted to visit. Amazingly, she went along with me, on the condition that I’d join her for horseback riding in the rain forest. (I did.)

I’d known about this place my whole life. It pops up regularly in the science and space news that I follow. Of course it appeared in Cosmos (the original with Carl Sagan). I’ve also been amused at its appearance in movies like Contact and Goldeneye (spoiler alert: Sean Bean dies, as his characters always do) And then, all of a sudden, I was there.

I was there, unlike Brian Williams.

I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true. You don’t appreciate just how huge this place is until you’re there. Pictures can’t capture it, even the panoramic shots I took. That dish is massive. The hardware hanging above it weighs, what, hundreds of tons? And it’s all suspended there in perfect balance. At least, it was, until recently.

How’s it hanging?

Another tenuous connection I have to Arecibo is my amateur radio background. The facility existed for space exploration, of course, but there is an amateur radio club within the group. The UHF antenna, which is the long rod sticking out the bottom across from the dome, just happens to operate on 440 MHz, which is also a popular amateur band. Occasionally, they’ve been able to use the big dish to bounce signals off the moon, back to earth, and contact earthbound hams.

The basket.

Speaking of movies, a little known fact I learned during our official tour of Arecibo. There’s a scene in Goldeneye where James Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan, chases Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) down the catwalk to the center of this structure. Brosnan’s a great actor, and he wanted to do as many stunts himself as the producers would let him. The problem was that Brosnan was secretly afraid of heights. He tried and tried to get the shot, but he just couldn’t. So you see a stuntman running down the catwalk instead.

That which was.

I’m extremely thankful I got the chance to see the place in its full glory. I’m sad that it had to end this way, ultimately due to defunding and not keeping up with the maintenance this place took. It seems they made the right call to not make a valiant last effort to save it because it would’ve put people in danger. The fact that it collapsed soon after they made that decision completely validates it. It’s still sad, though, and the end of an era in space exploration.

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