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What it Takes to Build the World’s Largest Telescope

by Dr. Robert N. Shelton, President, GMTO Corporation

The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) project is a billion-dollar endeavor to create the world’s largest telescope, with first light expected in 2023. Being constructed at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, this 25 meter diameter telescope will have a unique seven mirror design. Each of the flawless 8.4 meter diameter mirrors is made at the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab at the University of Arizona using a spin-casting and polishing process developed there. The GMT project is a collaboration of eleven universities and institutions from across the United States, Australia, Brazil and Korea who together have raised over half a billion dollars to start construction.

Science projects on grand scales, such as the GMT, are necessary to push the frontiers of humanity’s knowledge. They help us answer the greatest questions about the universe and our place in it: how did we get here, what is our fate, and are we alone?

First 100 days

In my first 100 days at the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO) I’ve emphasized making connections with as many of the people involved with the project as possible. I’ve spent many hours talking to board members, presidents of our founding institutions, and other interested parties. I’ve travelled to the San Francisco Bay area, to Washington D.C., to Arizona, Texas and Illinois, to Korea, Japan and Chile. I’ve met with the staff in the project office, visited the Mirror Lab, and met with the Chile office staff in Santiago. The resounding message I’m hearing from everyone is of their passion for the project’s success.

KASI visit

Dr. Inwoo Han, President of the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, with Dr. Robert N. Shelton. Image credit: KASI.

 
I joined the GMT because I was inspired by its mission and its ambition. Taking on the leadership of a billion-dollar scientific project is not something to be taken lightly, and I was ready for the challenge.

Leading the project

Leading this kind of project is a unique experience – we are spending many years building one thing – the telescope – and when it’s completed, some of our jobs will be over and some will transition to the operation of the facility. Working in this paradigm is quite an education.

Leading a scientific organization such as the GMTO involves focusing on a multitude of items across the spectrum of the organization. I could be interviewing a candidate for the VP for Development position, talking with the chair of the board of directors, attending a media briefing, or discussing a contracting question. I’m prioritizing working on fundraising strategies, brainstorming ideas for events, making plans, and commissioning materials we can use to achieve our philanthropic goals.

Challenges

There are many challenges within my leadership sphere that I must not overlook. We must share the progress of the project with the world and ensure our stakeholders feel included. We must run the company as efficiently as possible, making good use of our founders’ hard-earned funding. We must ensure the telescope we build is the one astronomers want – and that we build not just an adequate telescope, but a spectacular one. And lastly, but most importantly, we must constantly strive to keep the project team feeling engaged and valued. Without our engineers and scientists, this project would not exist. Without the staff who provide the infrastructure to support the engineers and scientists, this project would fail. I’m working hard to ensure we keep a workplace culture that sustains our staff and grows them, and rewards them for the hard work they must do to make this project succeed. People need to know they are valued, that leadership works to empower them to perform at their optimal level and that their ideas are sought and will be given full consideration starting from a positive attitude.

Morning Tea

Robert Shelton with Leticia Woodard, Purchasing Manager, and Adam Contos, Instruments Manager. Image credit: Damien Jemison

 
Recruiting great talent to help us build this ambitious project is no simple task. We need very experienced, highly qualified engineers and project staff to ensure the telescope is designed and built well. These kinds of engineers are in short supply and are usually gainfully employed elsewhere. To attract the best and brightest we aim to inspire engineers with the message of the satisfaction of a big challenge and the rich rewards of working here.

The project office is run extremely well by Dr. James Fanson, GMT’s Project Manager, and since he joined a year and a half ago, he has built the ever-growing team into a cohesive unit. Every engineer at GMTO wants to make the best telescope possible and the team works in the sphere of robust discussion. We are moving forward with our review of the telescope mount proposals and preparing to release the RFP for the final design of the enclosure and for the hard rock excavation work at the site at Las Campanas. Gradually transitioning our thinking into the process of finalizing designs and bringing them to the marketplace for bid and execution is an activity the project is becoming accustomed to.

My main contribution to the project is to continue to bring in the funding needed to complete the telescope. We have $500 million committed from our founders, but we need to raise the rest. I am working with our current founding partners and we are engaging with other world class institutions who want to be part of the project. Now is the time to get involved, and I am encouraging those who are thinking about it to put their plans into action.

The Future

Astronomy has the power to inspire people to think beyond the immediate, to focus on the bigger picture, and cast an eye to the future. Astronomy attracts young people across all nations to careers in science and engineering. World class science projects are invaluable for keeping the next generation of thinkers engaged. Young scientists will lose interest if the tools to do their work are not invested in and their expertise and ideas will be absent from important scientific conversations. I am honored to be given the opportunity to be a part of the Giant Magellan Telescope project, an important tool for the future of astronomical discovery, and its mission to advance our understanding of the universe.