Shortly after he spoke to the moon, Trexler began lobbying the Navy for a giant, steerable telescope. If they wanted to listen to the Soviets, then Trexler calculated they would need a dish at least 700 feet in diameter.
To get an understanding of just how impractical Trexler’s pitch must have sounded, one needs to consider that the largest radio telescope in the world, under construction at the time, was only 250 feet in diameter. To this day, the largest steerable radio telescope in the world is only 300 feet. Trexler’s request was simply unreasonable—and everyone knew it.
But Trexler wasn’t one to let a little bureaucratic adversity get in his way; he had convinced the Navy to talk to the moon, after all. If the promise of eavesdropping on the Soviets wasn’t enough to convince the Navy to cough up the funds for his massive telescope, Trexler knew he could find an ally in the NRL astronomy department, which had been clamoring for a big dish for years
Starting in 1954, the NRL astronomers and Trexler’s signals intelligence people started meeting to discuss the details of what the project would look like. The basic idea was this: the signals intelligence people would get priority use of the device for eavesdropping on the Soviets when the moon was in view, and the rest of the time astronomers could use it to study the stars. But what the groups couldn’t agree on was just how big this thing should be. The stargazers pushed for a more modest telescope that was only 500 feet in diameter, but Trexler insisted this would be insufficient for his needs. So after months of back and forth, they finally struck a compromise—the telescope would be 600 feet in diameter.
Once they had hashed out the details of the project, now called the Naval Research Radio Facility or NRRO, this unlikely alliance of astronomers and spies started making the rounds to sell their project to a government and public who would ultimately be paying for it. The scientists handled the public, explaining how the telescope could be used to unravel the mysteries of the universe, and downplaying its covert military purposes as much as possible. Meanwhile, Trexler pitched the Navy on the idea, explaining how it could be used for everything from intercepting Soviet radar to a powerful new communication tool for the Navy’s global fleet. After months of campaigning, the Navy bought Trexler’s pitch and the NRL team started drilling into the engineering details for what would be far and away the biggest telescope ever built.
Even on paper, the NRRO was a beast. Its 600 foot dish was to be mounted on top of a stubby rolling platform that would give it a 360-degree field of view. The telescope could be pointed in any direction between the horizons to an accuracy of only a fraction of a degree. The whole apparatus would weigh over 22,000 tons, about the weight of a freight ship, and stand taller than the Washington monument. It would be the largest, land-based moveable structure ever created by a long shot. There’s no other way to say it: the thing was huge.
The Navy broke ground for the telescope in Sugar Grove, West Virginia in June 1958—and that’s precisely when the problems started. The tensions of the Cold War had endowed the NRRO project with a sense of urgency, which meant that the telescope’s engineers did not have time to finalize their designs before construction started. The NRL made a “strategic” decision to build and design the telescope at the same time, which turned out to be a very, very expensive mistake. Flaws in the initial designs meant that engineers were constantly adding more material to the support structure for the giant dish. Each new steel beam in the design added thousands of dollars to the cost of the project and the price estimate for the telescope quickly ballooned.
Originally pitched as a $20 million project, by 1959 the telescope was estimated to cost around $79 million. It was way over budget, but the Navy wanted this telescope and it wanted it bad. This much was clear to the planetary astronomer Frank Drake, who visited the Sugar Grove facility about a year after construction began. He was working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which is located about an hour drive over the Allegheny mountains in Green Bank, West Virginia. The Navy had invited Drake and his colleagues at NRAO to check out the progress on its world class telescope as a good will gesture, and the visitors were amazed at what they saw.
As Drake later detailed in an essay posted to the SETI League mailing list, he walked through the town that was home to the electrical engineers working on the telescope and found that there were “countless coffee mugs and t-shirts with an artist’s conception of the telescope on them and souvenirs of all kinds.” Drake wandered around the “huge structural components” for the telescope that littered the area and found massive support towers, each 300-feet high, already in place beneath the telescope’s concrete base. Beneath the base, he found a two-story building to be used by a small army of linguists, that would translate intercepted Soviet messages. The subterranean complex came complete with a shop, a technical library and lounge areas for the workers.
“Picture a beehive of little rooms, all underground, protected from radio frequency interference by overhead imported charcoal and soil,” Drake recalled. “The whole thing seemed like something out of a science fiction movie.”
But the NRRO was not long for this world. Frequent design changes pushed the budget higher and higher. In an attempt to limit the telescope’s runaway expenses, Congress passed a law in 1961 that capped the budget at $135 million. By that point, however, everyone involved with Sugar Grove knew the project was doomed. There was no way to complete the telescope with that sort of budget, and it seemed to be a matter of time until the whole thing was canceled outright. By 1961, construction on the telescope had come to a crawl and efforts were shifted almost entirely to design work. The following year the Secretary of Defense made a final judgment call: The world’s biggest dish was getting eighty-sixed. “The government of West Virginia was devastated,” Drake later eulogized. “All those coffee cups and t-shirts wasted.”
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