By John Ross
Tucked away in a little bowl in the Blue Ridge free of radio and light interference lies what was once one of NASA’s vital satellite tracking stations. The station wasn’t a secret. How could you hide 19 radio telescopes with their huge white dishes even if they’re about as far off the beaten path as you can get? Repurposed today, the facility is located a couple miles west of NC Highway 215 as it climbs up from Rosman to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
PARI is the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, an educational nonprofit that puts to use a trove of high-tech, space-investigation technology deployed from NASA’s early days through the height of the Cold War. When shuttered in 1995, the Rosman Satellite Tracking and Data Acquisition Facility was the whitest of elephants. When Don Cline, at the time an advisor to Appalachian State University’s (ASU’s) College of Arts and Sciences, learned that the site was being vacated he thought some of the surplus radio telescopes could be moved to ASU.
One look at “Smiley,” the happy face painted on the dish of one of the radio telescopes, convinced him there was no way it or the biggest telescope, 140 feet tall and weighing 325 tons, could be relocated.
At the time, “the US was not doing a very good job educating people about science,” Don says. He believed that too few young people had the opportunity to do hands-on science, particularly space research.
Acquiring the site took an act of Congress, literally. It was owned by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), which could trade but not sell it. Don found private parcels the USFS wanted but had no money to buy, purchased them and made the swap with Congressional approval.
PARI opened in 1999 with the mission of supporting space investigation by school and college students, university researchers and businesses. Two years ago, PARI opened two dormitories, two large cabins and food service to accommodate students campers and visiting researchers. The camps introduce middle- and high-school students to the kinds of investigations that took place when PARI was the Rosman Tracking Station.
Brad McCall superintends the facility these days. His grandfather, father and uncle helped construct the station beginning in 1962. When it opened, his father Thad went to work there and retired after 54 years. Brad’s first memory as a boy is sitting on his daddy’s lap rotating the big ball that positioned one of the huge radio telescope dishes.
An engineer painted the smiling face on another radio telescope’s reflector dish to get even with the Russians who were writing obscene messages in the snow to be read by American spy satellites. “The station chief got a call from the Department of Defense to remove the face immediately!” Brad recounts. Within minutes, Washington countermanded the order. Among Brad’s duties today is making sure “Smiley” is always smiling brightly.
For Don, PARI must be the ultimate childhood fantasy come true. When he was 10, he bought a refraction mirror, took apart a microscope and built himself a telescope. Fascination with technology led him through a career with Bell Labs to ownership of a company manufacturing telephone test equipment. For him, visions of space education know no bounds.
Up-to-date information on summer camps during COVID-19 times is available at PARI.edu. PARI welcomes groups and individual visitors, but requires an advance reservation. To learn more, call 828.862.5554.