Observatory History

Astronomy students next to the telescope they built

For more observatory history, visit Dr. Harold Geller’s Observatory History page.

Few people are aware of the fact that GMU had two astronomy observatories years ago. The first officially opened 6 October 1975. In fact, work on the first observatory began in 1972. The observatory was called the Herschel Observatory by the Department of Physics, but that name was not official. It was built by students (John Whalan, Chipper Peterson, and Bob Veenstra) under the supervision of Bill Lankford.

Menas Kafatos took over the supervision of the Herschel Observatory when he came to GMU in the fall of 1975. The location of the Herschel Observatory was the pig shed adjacent to the Mallory House, across Route 123 from the main campus. The pig shed was torn down to make way for the Field House, and a second observatory was built in the athletic fields. Unfortunately, this second observatory suffered vandalism, that ultimately lead to its demise by 1980. It was torn down within two years.

There have been plans for a new observatory for GMU ever since. Original plans were made to have an observatory on the top of Science and Technology I, Science and Technology II, and Academic IV (now known as Innovation Hall). In 1982 Geller circulated a petition that was received by then President Johnson, regarding the building of an observatory for GMU. Over the years, faculty involved in plans to obtain a new observatory have included Lankford, Kafatos, Lieb, Ellsworth, Ehrlich, Becker, Wallin, Geller, and Dworzecka. Administrators that have been advocates for an observatory include Provost Stearns, Vice-Provost Hill, Dean Struppa and Dean Kafatos. Each time financial concerns stopped the building of an observatory.

Now, almost 30 years later, GMU has begun building its new Research I facility with an observatory tower that has an observatory on top of the facility. Like its 1975 counterpart, the new observatory is expected to see a lot of use for public outreach events. As Kafatos said in 1978 in an interview with Jodi Musolino of GMU’s Broadside, the observatory will be “taken advantage of by many members of the community, such as, boy scout and other youth groups.” GMU’s own students should find the observatory an aide in the learning of astronomy.