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An observatory atop Pikes Peak cannot be deemed a “new use,” contrary to U.S. Forest Service contentions, because astronomy has been undertaken there for hundreds of years, an expert reports.
Scientists have tried for 20 years to get a telescope perched on the peak, only to be told most recently that the Forest Service won’t allow a new use with the planned Summit House there.
But telescopes have been lugged to the peak since July 1878, when a total solar eclipse drew astronomers and other scientists from across the nation, says an academic paper by Steve Ruskin, who has a doctorate in history and philosophy of science from the University of Notre Dame.
More than a week before the eclipse, Pikes Peak expedition leader Samuel Pierpont Langley and his team “scaled Pikes Peak and set up their observatory, consisting of a large telescope on loan from the U.S. Naval Observatory and a few other instruments, all of which reportedly took a team of 12 mules five trips to bring to the summit,” wrote Ruskin, a Colorado Springs native.
“From that point forward,” he said Thursday, “Pikes Peak hosted not only astronomers, but also became a mecca for scientists of all kinds. But to say there was never such a use, I think that’s absolutely inaccurate.
“By claiming that, I respectfully think they’re ignorant as to the history of Pikes Peak. If they persist, I think they’ll wind up on the wrong side of history.”
The City Council and Mayor John Suthers reiterated their strong support for the observatory during a meeting Tuesday morn-ing.
The 1-meter primary mirror research-grade observatory telescope, equipped with atmospheric and space science instrumentation, would be financed with national grants and private funds.
“We’re not asking for city money,” said Robert J. Sallee, board chairman for the National Space Science & Technology Institute, a longtime proponent of the project.
The three objectives for the observatory, listed in the project’s environmental assessment are:
A city plan to put an observatory on the peak stalled when a Sierra Club lawsuit in 1998 forced the paving of Pikes Peak Highway, which was finished in 2011.
Then observatory supporters were excluded by former Mayor Steve Bach’s administration from a citizens’ group push for a new Summit House.
They were told that the Forest Service barred “new uses.” That’s not exactly accurate. Anyone can apply for a special use permit on Forest Service land, as many ski resorts have done successfully.
But the observatory would be categorized as a “new use” within the Summit House proposal. And that’s where the National Space Science & Technology Institute wants the telescope to be.
“We want to do what makes the best sense — whether integrated into the new Summit House or as a standalone observing platform” on that site, said astronomer Dimitri Klebe. “Those are things we just want to be able to discuss.”
Asked Sallee: “Why can there not be an exception if there’s an exceptional reason for granting one?”
Forest Service officials did not return requests for comment Friday.
Karen Palus, director of city Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services, has been negotiating for the Summit House with the Forest Service, National Park Service, Army and Colorado Springs Utilities, each of which has a presence on the mountain.
Palus was out of the office Friday and referred inquiries to colleague Christi Mehew, who did not respond.
The telescope wouldn’t be used only for astronomy. It also could spot wildfires, monitor weather, enlighten up to 600,000 visitors a year and provide research to benefit society, the military and universities.
Its proponents in the National Space Science & Technology Institute also want to send a mobile laboratory with its telescope to spend a week at each of Colorado’s underserved rural schools.
The lab is designed to spur greater student interest in STEM education.
That’s especially important to City Councilman Don Knight, who racked up awards during his 26 years on Air Force space systems assignments and then spent a decade as regional director of Orbital Sciences Corp., helping with satellite systems for the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies.
“We have an aging population of our aerospace workers, and we’re not getting graduates to replace those who are retiring,” Knight said in May after hearing a presentation. “Anything we can do as a city to promote STEM education is a no-brainer. We are the mecca for space, and we don’t have an observatory. … I don’t think it would be that difficult for the Forest Service to grant a waiver.”
The mountaintop scope would be operated from a downtown science museum planned by Air Force Academy graduate Steve Rothstein and DeeAnn Rothstein.
They have a memorandum of understanding with the internationally renowned BSCS, an institution of Ph.D.s who develop science curriculums and have been based in Colorado Springs since 1982.
The two entities would share space and scientific educational undertakings downtown.
On Tuesday, City Council members said they will approach U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and Colorado’s congressional delegation, if necessary, to help push through the proposal for a Pikes Peak observatory.
Sallee said, “We are trying to work with the Forest Service and the city to find out what’s in the best interests of the community and the best approach to move forward.”