Interview with Gart Westerhout on 29 July 1993

Description

Gart Westerhout, interviewed by Steven J. Dick at the U.S. Naval Observatory, Washington D.C. on 29 July 1993.

Creator

Papers of Gart Westerhout

Rights

Contact Archivist for rights information.

Type

Oral History

Interviewee

Gart Westerhout

Location

Original Format of Digital Item

Audio cassette tape

Interview Date

1993-07-29

Notes

This transcript is PART 7 of a series of seven interviews of Gart Westerhout by Steven J. Dick conducted between 19 February and 29 July 1993. The transcript of all interviews was checked and corrected by Dr. Westerhout in October 2000. The original audio tapes were deposited at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Because the interviews were conducted while both Westerhout and Dick were federal employees, there are no copyright restrictions on the interview. The interview is posted here as a supplement to the Papers of Gart Westerhout at the suggestion of Dr. Dick, who provided the transcript, with his permission and that of the Westerhout family.

Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event.

Series

Additional Materials About Westerhout Series

Transcription

Begin Tape 7 Side A

Dick

I would like to day and talk a little bit about the present and the future. It seems to me in some ways that the Naval Observatory is currently at a turning point. Would you agree with that? In astrometry, for example.

Westerhout

In astrometry, not in time.

Dick

Why in astrometry?

Westerhout

We're at a turning point because we are going from old technology to new technology. We are replacing the transit circles eventually - not immediately, but eventually - by the interferometer for the much more precise star positions. We are really getting into the area of making large-scale star catalogs rather than star catalogs with only a few thousand or 10,000 stars in them, with an astrograph, with the idea that there will increasingly be a need of having dense fields of stars available for electronic camera work on satellites and things like that. In other words, a background inventory with, again, the greatest possible accuracy which is the standard of the observatory. There are, of course, background inventories in the form of plates, and there is the guide star catalog and all those sort of things, but they're all so-so. So both of those are completely new initiatives. We've never really - we've done an astrograph program and we were planning at the time to do an astrograph program with the twin 8-inch astrograph, but that was still limited to 12th magnitude or so. We're now making a great big step. We're going a whole 5 or 6 magnitudes fainter.

Dick

What are the accuracies of those positions going to be?

Westerhout

The accuracies - we're aiming at .05 second of arc, which is a factor of 4 better than what we got with the 8-inch astrograph photographically.

Dick

And, of course, with the interferometry, you're looking at milliarc second accuracies.

Westerhout

Yes, about 5 milliarc second. But the interferometer, of course, is always limited to catalogs of 1,000 stars or so, because it's a much slower process to get that accuracy with an interferometer. But we hope with the interferometer to have the first catalog out during 1996. So that's in astrometry.

The other thing that must be said there is that the observatory is at a turning point in that we are in the process of very, very aggressively making our availability known. We were always here as a backwater, and people hardly even knew that the observatory provided those star positions. We are right now at the turning point where we hope - in fact, that's one of the things we are working towards, that throughout the DoD, the availability of the observatory is known and that, in fact, we are the authority, as we are the authority in time, a stage we reached about 20 years ago.

Dick

How are you trying to do that in astrometry, though?

Westerhout

In astrometry we're doing that first by doing a lot of talking to many different commands in the Navy and the Air Force, and eventually getting that up to a high enough level so that one can start suggesting that if we propose a document that gives us that authority, that that document will be favorably looked at. We are already at that point in the Navy. There is a Navy document that already says that we're the authority for astrometry.

Dick

And there has been for a long time, in time.

Westerhout

In time, that was DoD. We are the manager of precise time for the DoD, and all DoD systems must be synchronized to the master clock, and the same sort of thing should eventually be in astronomy. All star positions used by the DoD should be verified or originated by the Naval Observatory.

Dick

Does that look like an attainable goal?

Westerhout

That looks like an attainable goal, but it's a lot of hard work on the part of quite a few departments.

Dick

But this seems sort of an obvious thing to do to let your users know how important we are. Why has this not been done till now?

Westerhout

It has been done, but not in the aggressive way. I mean, I've been speaking for classified seminars and space seminars, things like that, and Dr. Hughes has done a little bit of that, but that's where it stopped, basically. There was no further contact. We expect that many more people will be involved. Basically, people were always sort of kept away from that. It was assumed that the command would do that. You just can't let just the command do it. There's much more to it. Your experts have to be available.

Dick

And the applied astrometry forum was a part of this, that was held last year.

Westerhout

The second one of that is now being organized for the seventh of December. We're giving it a slightly different name, and I forget what the name is now. It's called astrometry for guidance tracking and positioning, or something like that. In other words, we are putting the uses in there, rather than saying applied astrometry, because that still doesn't make sense. How do you make your - what's astrometry? When you say "star positions," they have some idea, but if you put the words in that everybody knows what they mean, then you say, "Aha! Oh, yes. Of course you need that."

Dick

This brings us to the question of where does celestial navigation stand in the Navy and the DoD today? Because a lot of people say you don't need celestial navigation anymore; we have all these electronic systems. So is this a problem in selling it?

Westerhout

No, it depends on what you call celestial navigation. In the first place, celestial navigation, as such, which some people now like to call lifeboat navigation, is still around, and it's the final product that must be available at all times. Don't forget that the strategic bombing force always had to rely on stars. They were not even allowed to use radio, because they were all flying around Russia, ready to drop their bombs, so they shouldn't be in radio contact or anything. They were forever taking star sights.

Dick

And do U.S. Navy ships still have the capability to do celestial navigation?

Westerhout

Still have the capability of doing celestial navigation.

Dick

They still carry chronometers?

Westerhout

I don't know whether they carry chronometers. They probably carry clocks of some sort. Hey, your wristwatch is good enough for that sort of celestial navigation. So I doubt that they still carry chronometers. The major vessels probably do, but that's just for fun.

Dick

But that's just in the backup sense.

Westerhout

The backup sense. Navigation in the sense of using star sensors to precisely find your location in space or your direction or your location on the ground is very much important, because in the end, all systems are calibrated against the stars. You lay out the launch azimuth for a rocket by using star sights, and it's simply more accurate than anything else that can be done. Once you're up in a rocket or a satellite, you use star sensors in order to do mid-course maneuvering. There you actually do look. The Trident is an example of that, which is well known, which has star sensors on it.

Dick

But how about aside from weapon systems? Are there applications of celestial navigation?

Westerhout

Well, it depends. A Navy ship is a weapon system, but the civilian community still buys 30,000 almanacs in this country and another 35,000 in England. So somebody seems to be using celestial navigation. Every time we make some comments about changing it or survey the users and so on, the word comes back loud and clear, "There is no way." They don't even want the format changed, because all their textbooks are based on this format of the almanac. So we're a little bit stuck with that. That's why we're working on now a PC-based navigation system, and it's the current activity in the AA department.

That is, in other words, also a turning point. It's a turning point that started earlier with the Floppy Almanac and then MICA, but it's a turning point in that we are now slowly but surely getting people to accept the fact that celestial navigation must be integrated into their PCs. I would say that's a turning point, too - becoming modern.

Then a further turning point is the current activity which is more or less a one-man activity of Dr. Seidelmann, in getting into the whole business of satellite orbits, the orbital theories and the orbital algorithms that are used by the various parts of the armed forces, the attempt to standardize that and to say the Naval Observatory is the standard organization that will do that, we're working on that. Seidelmann has been very successful in being sort of an arbiter. They sort of feel that although he works for the Navy, he stands above the fray, because the air force and the Navy think if they look at the same satellite, they have a different orbit for the same satellite. Not quite, but there are quite considerable differences. So that is an item that is being worked on and where I expect that the Naval Observatory will be a standard-setter.

Dick

It seems to me we're also at a turning point in personnel. There are a lot of people who have been here for 30 years, and there's a lot of turnover, including yourself.

Westerhout

There is not yet a lot of turnover, but there will be in the next few years. When you look through the list, you can come up with, among the scientific staff, at least ten people that will be leaving in the next five years.

Dick

But it's already started, if not with retirement, with deaths--Jim Hughes and Harrington and Clay Smith, senior people.

Westerhout

If you can't get them retired, you kill them by having them drink the water. That's why I'm leaving now!

Dick

But I see this pattern of people going for 30 years. It goes back to Simon Newcomb. They go and a new bunch comes in. Of course, everybody doesn't leave at one time.

Westerhout

The hope is that the new bunch will be able to continue with the same vigor, which did not happen after Simon Newcomb left.

Dick

That's right.

Westerhout

For a long time, the observatory was at a very low ebb.

Dick

He was a hard act to follow.

Westerhout

Absolutely. Absolutely. We now think that we have enough high talent around the observatory that that will not happen, even with department heads. Winkler some day is going to leave, too. Seidelmann some day is going to leave. Janiczek is certainly going to leave in another five years, I'm sure. But there is already enough talent around to replace all these people without the inertia suddenly getting lost. I think that we have a large amount of talent.

Now, I omitted, in this business of turning point, Time Service, because that turning point was already reached quite a while ago in the sense that Time Service is indeed fully recognized. In many systems, like the GPS, it carries automatically Naval Observatory time. In the rest of the country, however, there is still this - I think we discussed that earlier - the problem with NIST and their timing business. Therefore, Time Service has an almost continuous need for alertness in making people in the DoD realize that this is the clock you have to refer to. The turning point there, of course, is the invention of time transfer via satellite. That is really taking off. We now have quite a number of satellite terminals already, several of them mobile.

Dick

You mean GPS or other satellites, too?

Westerhout

No, other satellites. I mean, all these things are communication satellites. These use communication satellites. It costs us $75 an hour.

Dick

That's what these antennas are out here for.

Westerhout

We have all these permits, lease agreements, and so on, with satellite companies. We are now also developing...we have just developed the capability of also using the Defense Satellite Communication System, which is a lot more complicated and therefore requires much more expensive equipment to handle, but that's what we're working on now.

Dick

We're getting now into another question that I wanted to ask you, and that's about the future of the observatory. I don't know how you are at predicting, but if you could predict, say, how the observatory will have changed in maybe 20 years, would you see major changes, or you think we'll be going along doing basically what we are doing with different technology?

Westerhout

Well, as long as our mission remains positions of stars and planets, motion of the Earth, and precise time, we obviously will be doing the same things 20 years from now.

Dick

You don't foresee any change in the mission?

Westerhout

I don't foresee any change in the mission. The most I could think is that somebody will add something to the mission, but even that I find somewhat doubtful. But the technology may well change rather drastically. I do foresee that 20 years from now we will definitely be operating a satellite of some sort. When we talked about satellites a number of years ago, in fact, this was before GPS really came off. We thought it was very important that there would be a Naval Observatory satellite that provided precise time. Now GPS is so well under control that it does it, so that need is no longer there. We were toying with the idea of a satellite that provides precise time while it surveys the sky for astrometry, which, of course, hey, putting a clock on a satellite isn't all that hard, in addition to doing the astrometry. I think it will be astrometry, and I see very continued close collaboration in that area with NRL.

Dick

Would you say that the transit circle will be gone in 20 years?

Westerhout

Definitely. Definitely. Yes. Transit circle, I think, doesn't have much more than another five years or so.

Dick

And how about VLBI? Do you think that will still be going or some other technology?

Westerhout

I see no other - I mean, the quasars are really the ultimate thing for stability to test the motion of the Earth against. I don't see anything else coming up that does that. VLBI may be more automated in the sense that you do on-line data reduction. You know from hour to hour where the Earth is, but other than that, in other words, no sending of tapes anywhere. It will go through fiber optics. I expect that in five years. In fact, the new correlator we are building, which should be on line in another three years or so, is equipped to handle immediate input from various stations.

Dick

And in the area of clocks, do you think cesiums will still be around, or will the mercury ion have taken over by then?

Westerhout

No, personally I think that cesiums will still be around. I think that technology is - cesiums may be miniaturized. There is at the moment a move afoot - several companies are building cesium clocks on a chip, with a tiny little glass thing containing the cesium which has the oscillator in it and so on and so forth. Next month, a few people at Westinghouse are giving a demonstration of those things.

Dick

I thought we might summarize. I have a document here written by you last year about this time saying, "Setting up a Course for the Future." You remember that?

Westerhout

No.

Dick

There's some questions on there I thought we would just briefly run over as a way of summarizing the future. Don't you remember that?

Westerhout

No.

Dick

You wrote it.

Westerhout

I probably did, yes.

Dick

You say that we must at all times remember our mission - provide for DoD. That leads to the question, what are the issues? Of course, we've discussed a lot of that already. But then you say, "What will be the issues in 10 or 20 years requiring astrometric data?"

Westerhout

Right.

Dick

I guess we've covered that, too.

Westerhout

Oh, I see. That was a question. I thought you were now going to read what the issues were.

Dick

No. I'm asking you. In 10 or 20 years, what will be the issues requiring astrometric data?

Westerhout

Basically we have covered that. Satellite tracking is an important aspect there, as well as all the things that are now issues.

Dick

Yes, we've covered a lot of this. What astrometry is needed? Do we need to advance? What technology shall be used? We've really covered this. What equipment do we need to develop? We've already talked about electronic astrograph and advances in that. Are we the keepers of the flame? If so, why? Which flame do you mean there - the astrometric and time?

Westerhout

Astrometric and time. And if so, why? I think the answer to that is, yes, we strongly feel that we are the keepers of the flame, and we should remain so, rather than thinning it out and having a whole lot of people do it. There should be one organization that is really responsible simply for the sake of standardization, of documentation, of economies in usage.

Dick

You say, "What does maintaining the national and world leadership do for us? What is required to maintain that, and what sort of people do we need for that?" Do you consciously look for certain kinds of people when you're anticipating these new programs? I guess you do, for example, with CCDs.

Westerhout

You do with CCDs, but when you look for new people, you look for people who can be innovative, who can come up with entirely new ideas as to how to accomplish something. Now, you don't look for that in every new staff member that you hire, of course. You look at that among your leaders. A guy like McCarthy comes up as somebody that really climbed up tremendously and became a world leader in his field, without any question. That is what keeps the flame going. That's the people you hope you will be able to dig out already early in the game.

Dick

Are there any other things that we've missed, that you would like to discuss? It's hard to remember everything that we've talked about.

Westerhout

I don't.

Dick

This is your final week as Scientific Director - final full week here. Do you want to discuss for a few minutes the position itself?

Westerhout

It is very nice to have a historian who packs all your boxes. [Laughter]

Dick

[Laughter] But I understand that the SES position seems to have been lost.

Westerhout

It seems to have been lost. That is the correct word. We do not know really whether that's indeed the end result, that it therefore will be replaced by a professional scientific position, a so-called ST, science and technology. Those positions were created about five years ago, because it was realized that there were also senior scientists who did not manage - where the typical SES job is one where you can relatively easily be moved from one organization to another, not just within the DoD, but within the government, because you're a manager. You're a manager of Ford Motor Company, Volkswagen can hire you. You become a manager of Volkswagen. When you're managing the EPA, the next time you're there, you find yourself a manager of a radio astronomy observatory such as Kurt Riegel, one of my early PhDs at Maryland. Kurt Riegel was an SES in the EPA, and he applied for the job of manager of the Naval Observatory. He's in the NSF and was that for six years. Now he is in the Atomic Energy Commission as a manager.

Dick

And it's sort of the same philosophy with Superintendents here, I guess. They can go around and manage anything over their period of two or three years.

Westerhout

Exactly. That does not work in an organization like this. Here you need somebody - you don't find people around the government who all have the same sort of background as a Scientific Director should have as his PD says. Therefore, this is sort of an odd one out. In addition, the typical SESer, who is at the rank of a rear admiral, usually, has fiscal responsibility, responsibility for large numbers of people. This position does not, although it is very heavily involved in fiscal and has the fiscal responsibility for the R&D program. The buck always stops at the Superintendent's desk, and that makes it again a peculiar position. Now, the ST positions were created for science managers and senior scientists who manage a science program, but not necessarily all the finances of it. I bet - I'm sure that Jerome Carl [at NRL] is an ST, and his wife probably, also. On the other hand, Ken Johnston is an SES, because he manages 125 people and a budget of many, many, many millions of dollars, in addition to doing his own science. So that's where the difference lies.

So I don't see it as altogether bad that we might lose the SES position, provided that indeed they will recognize that obviously it is an ST position. The ST position, funnily enough, has not had assigned to it the benefit of retaining all your annual leave. It has the same leave ceiling as anybody else, whereas the SES does not have a leave ceiling. Dr. Winkler has an unearthly amount of annual leave potted up over all the years. That always worries RM. When he retires, he's getting an enormous amount. Every year they ask me, when they make up the budget, "Should we count this year on Dr. Winkler leaving?" [Laughter]

Dick

They'll have to get a congressional appropriation. [Laughter]

Westerhout

Absolutely. But that is something that apparently they're going to do away with. Clinton has determined that that's a benefit that isn't necessary. It was established at the time they established SES because they had the feeling that a manager at that sort of a position never takes any leave, so the odd week that he takes in a year is much less than the four weeks he usually gets, so make that a benefit. That's what they've done.

Dick

But anyway, the Scientific Director position here has somewhat of a history of being a bit shaky in connection with the Superintendent. I mean, there have been cases with Kai Strand, for example, when they tried to abolish the position. But you see the dual headship as a positive thing?

Westerhout

I find it a very positive thing. In the case of Kai Strand, it was somewhat different, because there Kai Strand was a dictator and started keeping the Superintendent out of things, completely out of things, and had managed to have line responsibility written in. So he was a true SES. He was responsible. All the department heads reported to him, and therefore all the scientific departments reported to him, so he had 150 people working for him, in a sense. But, funnily enough, he did not have financial responsibilities. The Superintendent was responsible. As I told you, he would have meetings with closed doors, and then came a Superintendent who felt that he was the Superintendent. He says, "I want to be in your meetings." So Strand moved the meetings to Building 52 so the Superintendent didn't know he had meetings. And that, therefore, caused one particular Superintendent to say, "No way." Then came this business of the so-called Black October in October '76, when Strand maintains that this came from higher up, but there are a lot of people who maintain that Strand took advantage of these instructions of lowering the high grades and started arranging to demote some people that he wanted demoted. Captain Smith inherited that, and he had to execute it the first month he was here, and he did not like that at all.

Dick

I think we've talked about that.

Westerhout

That's why Captain Smith immediately, when Strand left, cut the line responsibility back out of the PD. So there is another area of friction, but there are bound to be areas of friction. It depends on the people. I'm a person who doesn't very much like friction, so I've been getting along famously with all the Superintendents, without any trouble at all, with the one exception of Captain Roberts, but that had something to do - that was only half a year. The cause of that we threw down the stairs.

Dick

[Laughter] Okay. Is there anything else you'd like to say?

Westerhout

No.

Dick

Otherwise, we'll end here, and I thank you very much. As we look over the transcripts, I hope you might be able to fill in some gaps.

Westerhout

What percent of the gross do I get when you publish?

Dick

[Laughter] And the movie rights.

Westerhout

The movie rights! Oh, gosh.

End Tape 7 Side A (end of final interview)

Citation

Papers of Gart Westerhout, “Interview with Gart Westerhout on 29 July 1993,” NRAO/AUI Archives, accessed May 25, 2024, https://www.nrao.edu/archives/items/show/15327.