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by Gordon A. H. Walker

When Gemini Came Into Focus:

The November 29, 1990, Oxford Science Meeting The first-ever Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) meeting for the twin 8-meter telescopes project, then known as LT (for Large Telescope, “Gemini” was adopted two months later) began on a cold, grey, damp morning in the Nuclear and Astrophysics Laboratory, Oxford, U.K. (see Figure 1). A session in early September 1990 at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, British Columbia had been largely devoted to attempting to divide the engineering effort between the partners, but it had also charged the SAC to establish firm performance specifications for the engineers. In the U.S., the project was essentially the responsibility of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). Pat Osmer was overall project scientist (PS), and he came to Oxford with Richard Green, the U.S. project scientist, Fred Gillett, and Bob Schommer (of Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO)). I attended as the Canadian project scientist and René Racine was the other Canadian present. Roger Davies was the U.K. project scientist and attended with Pat Roche, Richard Ellis, and Ian Parry. Also from the U.K. was Keith Raybould, who was considering 8-meter telescope designs and who would go on to be a key player in the success of Gemini. Richard Bingham and Pat Wallace were also there, along with Matt Mountain who had come from Royal Observatory Edinburgh to talk about infrared spectrographs. We were not alone! There was more than one elephant in the room. Keck had achieved first light just a few days earlier with nine of their 36 mirror segments (full first light would not be achieved until April 1992). The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) wanted to know why we would not simply adopt the “proven” Keck segmented 10-meter design and thereby save both time and possibly money. As NSF was the only one with any large telescope funds, they were quite entitled to ask that question. In the October 1990 Congressional markup, $4 million (U.S.) had been set aside for large telescope engineering studies and the purchase of glass, provided there was a satisfactory 50:50 cost sharing between the U.S. on the one part and the U.K. and Canada on the other. Otherwise, there was only $2 million and a cap of $88 million for a single Northern Hemisphere telescope. While there was priority in the U.K. for a large telescope, their senior committee had yet to decide between the U.S.-U.K.-Canada collaboration or one with Spain on La Palma. A decision was expected in December 1990 (but that didn’t happen). The Hubble Space Telescope, launched six months earlier, was too bleary-eyed from spherical aberration yet to set it apart in optical resolution, but it remained a potential competitor for imaging (correcting optics were installed three years later in December 1993).



Issue 38 - June 2009