A Storied Summit at the McDonald Observatory, 75 Years Later


Sandra Preston, BBA ’79, has spent 35 years building the education and outreach programs for the McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas at Austin where she is currently the Assistant Director for Education and Outreach. Preston reflects on 75 years of history at the Observatory and on her own humble beginnings there.



On May 5, 1939 an assortment of astronomers from around the world made the arduous trip to a remote mountaintop in Fort Davis, Texas. They came to McDonald Observatory to attend a scientific symposium and to dedicate what was then the world’s second-largest telescope—later dubbed the Otto Struve Telescope.


Today, as I look at a book that was signed during that special weekend of the 82-inch telescope dedication almost 75 years ago, I am in awe. Some of the greatest names in astronomy were in attendance: Harlow Shapley, S. Chandrasekhar, Henry Norris Russell, Edwin Hubble and others who went on to be famous. There were women also—Helen Sawyer Hogg and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin—prolific observers, who significantly impacted our understanding about the Milky Way and stellar evolution.

I’m wondering too about William Johnson McDonald, that Paris, Texas banker, who turned the University of Texas upside down by leaving his million-dollar estate to create an observatory when there were no working astronomers. Mr. McDonald must have had quite a sense of humor. Could he have known his relatives would make a big fuss, claiming he was insane to leave his money for such a purpose? UT settled the lawsuit with the relatives out of court and went on to partner with the University of Chicago, where there was an abundance of astronomers, in order to get the Observatory built and run for 30 years.

Then in 1963 UT hired a young Yale graduate named Harlan Smith to run the Observatory, which was starting to get a bit shabby by this time. Harlan threw himself into building another big (107-inch) telescope to keep McDonald at the forefront of astronomical research. Now what I didn’t tell you earlier is Mr. McDonald’s will requested that “an observatory be built for the study and promotion of astronomical science.” Harlan was a missionary for astronomy and was passionate about promoting it to the public. So it was natural that he would support Deborah Byrd, BA ’76, in creating the daily 2-minute StarDate astronomy radio program and her employment of me (a student) part-time to place it on radio stations around the country. I’m still here 35 years later.


This year we are celebrating 75 years of discoveries, and there have been some amazing ones. To name just a few, there was the discovery of the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan (1944), bouncing a laser off a reflector on the moon and measuring the Earth-moon distance (1969), the discovery of the first exoplanet orbiting around a close binary star system (2002), the discovery of the most powerful supernovae known to date (2005), the first ground-based detection of the atmosphere of a planet outside our solar system (2007), discovery of a new type of white dwarf star (2008), and the discovery of the most massive black hole known to date (2012).

Another Yale graduate, Dr. Taft Armandroff, will become the new director of McDonald Observatory in June of this year. Where will he lead this great observatory that is on the verge of answering questions about dark energy using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, and has just become a partner in the 24.5-meter super Giant Magellan Telescope to be built in Chile? No doubt the discoveries over the next 25 years will be ones we can’t even fathom.

All this musing about history reminds me that if I make it to the Observatory’s 100th anniversary in 2039, I’ll be 85 years old. Then the memory of that warm, sunny day in 1978, when I first arrived on UT’s doorstep to finish my degree, starts to bubble up. I was an already-divorced, older-than-average student. I had taken a small loan, sold my shiny silver Volkswagen Beetle, and left most my other stuff behind to get here. Never, in my wildest dreams, could I have envisioned this career at McDonald Observatory. Funny how the universe works.

This article first appeared on Astronomers Without Borders.

Photos courtesy McDonald Observatory.


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