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PARI Image by Don Cline 7x400
Photo by Don Cline

One Historic Site, Three Important Missions

Oct. 26, 1963, the five-year-old National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) dedicated a new facility in the Pisgah National Forest southwest of Asheville, NC, that would play a critical role in the pioneering early days of the U.S. space effort. On that October day, little did anyone know that 50 years later the same site would be in its third important mission, and would now play an important role in educating and training the next generation of young scientists who will propel the space effort into new frontiers.

The 200-acre campus tucked into the ridges of the Pisgah National Forest west of Brevard now houses the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI), a public not-for-profit foundation bristling with scientific instruments used for research and for providing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education to students of all ages.

Mission Number One: Early Space Exploration
But PARI is the site’s third mission. During the infancy of the U.S. space program, the site hosted one of NASA’s first satellite monitoring stations and then was an important link in the national security grid for the U.S. Department of Defense.

In 1962, NASA recognized the intrinsic value of the location (protected from man-made electronic and light interference) when it was conducting a worldwide search for sites to host its network of satellite tracking and data collection stations. At the current PARI site, NASA built the Rosman Satellite Tracking and Data Acquisition Facility to be the nation’s primary east coast satellite-tracking facility. The facility was dedicated Oct. 26, 1963 in ceremonies attended by a Who’s Who of North Carolina elected officials: Gov. Terry Sanford, Sen. Sam Ervin, Sen. B. Everett Jordan and a host of others.

During the NASA era, the Rosman Tracking Station played a vital role in the space program, communicating with satellites and manned space flights as they passed over the East Coast. The Rosman facility also played a key role in the research and development of modern conveniences taken for granted today, such as weather satellites, GPS systems and coast-to-coast transmission of color TV signals. Eventually, satellite communication technology evolved and the Rosman Station was not as critical to NASA, but it was of growing importance for another important mission.

Mission Number Two: National Defense
In 1981, the Rosman Tracking Station was transferred to the Department of Defense (DOD) and used for satellite data collection. At its peak during this era, about 350 people were employed at the Rosman facility. During the years of active operation, it is estimated that the government invested several hundred million dollars in the site.

In 1995, the facility was closed and DOD operations were consolidated elsewhere. Of the 23 antennae, 19 were moved to other locations and most of the instrumentation and electronics were removed from the site. However, the bulk of the infrastructure remained, including PARI’s two signature 26 meter (85 ft.) dish antennas, and was maintained by the USDA Forest Service.

Mission Number Three: Education and Research
After several years of inactivity at the site, the government decided to dismantle the facility and let it return to the forest. Recognizing the tremendous value and potential for the site, Don and Jo Cline decided to rescue the campus and use it to help educate future generations of young scientists. The Clines reside in Greensboro and have been active for many years in supporting astronomy and science programs at several colleges, universities and museums. A not-for-profit foundation was established in September 1998. In January 1999, the Clines acquired the site and gifted it to the foundation. The Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute was born: a 200-acre infant with a proud heritage, untapped potential and vast needs.

Of the government investment over the years, it is estimated that what was left at the PARI campus represents a value of about $200 million. Much of the initial work at PARI was oriented to restoring the facility and its instruments to the level necessary for scientific and educational purposes. For example, PARI invested more than two million dollars to upgrade the electronic drives and computer controls for the two 26 meter radio telescopes. Overall, the private monetary investment in the facility is more than $15 million and the time investment by literally hundreds of people is beyond calculation. Today, PARI has a fulltime salaried staff, a network of consultants and an active roster of several dozen volunteer workers.

PARI’s mission is to provide hands-on educational and research opportunities for a broad cross-section of users in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. Scientific instruments at PARI include two 26m (85ft) radio telescopes, a 12.2m (40ft) radio telescope, a 4.6m (15ft) radio telescope (dubbed “Smiley” and operated remotely by students and teachers), a high frequency Jupiter-Io/Solar antenna, 11 optical telescopes on the PARI Optical Ridge, five weather and atmospheric monitoring stations, and various environmental monitoring and measuring instruments. All of these instruments are used students, teachers and volunteers of all ages, making PARI one of the few places in the country where world-class instruments are not restricted to limited use by top scientists. At PARI, students learn by doing, which makes it a very rare and valuable resource for students and teachers alike.

To date, several thousand students have been inspired by PARI programs that provide hands-on experiences to take science out of the classroom and into the realm of the imagination. Little did NASA realize 50 years ago what a powerful role the site would play in the future education of generations of young scientists. And PARI scientists and educators will tell you they have just scratched the surface of the site’s vast potential.