Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI)

In 1883, George Washington Vanderbilt began buying land near Asheville and soon afterward began building famed Biltmore House.


At one time, the Biltmore Estate included over 100,000 acres. When George Vanderbilt died in 1914, it became part of Pisgah National Forest; Wild turkeys and deer wander there to this day. In 1963, in the early, heady days of the space program, the government carved this spot out of the Forest for NASA's Rosman Satellite Tracking Station, which monitored missions from the early satellites through the Apollo program and Skylab project.

Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) near Brevard, N.C.

Back then, the station in mountainous Transylvania County proudly conducted tours for school groups and visitors who wanted to learn more about the space program.

By 1981, however, with new geo-synchronous satellites, the end of Skylab, and the agency's new interest in the space shuttle program, NASA no longer needed the tracking station. So the Department of Defense took over the station to use for intelligence gathering by the National Security Agency, and a shroud of secrecy fell over the site.

 There were no more tours for eager school children.

Of the 300 people who worked at the Rosman station at its peak, over 100 were guards, said Jim Powers, Site Administrator for what is there now, the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI).

"It was a very secure site," he said. "A guy one day was up in this area and wandered on this property when he was fishing and it wasn't too long before they got him and took him down here and questioned him for an hour."

NSA acts like a good reporter, suggested Charles Osborne, PARI's Technical Director. "Hyper-vigilant" is the word that comes to mind, he said.

"A reporter puts together diverse sources of information, as if it were a puzzle, to gain a full view of some incident, and provides this researched view to the public. NSA puts every available source of global information together as if it were a puzzle. And this becomes the 'morning news' for the President and members of the Pentagon, who need to react in proper measure to world events."

So people are off-based if they think of the NSA's activities at Rosman as some sort of spy activity, he went on. "There were no 'man on the street' spies here. Only technicians keeping a steady flow of information headed toward Washington.

"For example, if you aim a satellite antenna out over the Atlantic and watch satellite TV aimed primarily at Iraq, are you a spy, or just a person with an unusual taste in programming?" Until recent years, few people without a high security clearance knew about the Rosman station or what it did when it was run by the National Security Agency. Information about the facility's use from 1981 to 1995 is classified.

"The site was closed, there was all this interest in talking about the spy station and talking about what went on up here," said Powers. "And that is a point of interest we are not really interested in fostering or continuing."

When the facility closed in 1995, local employees signed confidentiality agreements to keep them from divulging anything they may have seen or taken part in while they were there. As Powers put it," The past is the past."

At the same time, he will tell you that there are things on this site you'll never see anywhere else.

"Everywhere you go, there's not one of something - there's two of it [down to two pumps for the well]. Everything is duplicated, so that there is never any issue of it going down."

Originally, there were no utilities in the area. Electricity came from an on-site generating powerful enough to light up a small city. A 90,000 gallon tank on top of one of the surrounding hills handled water, sewer, and fire control. A local electrical cooperative came later, but lines were allowed only to the outer perimeter.

The NSA returned the land to the Forest Service and staff removed the sensitive electronics equipment, but left behind the larger satellite dishes, controls and extensive fiber optic wiring. They also left 20 buildings covering more than 100,000 square feet of temperature-controlled space.

Meanwhile, the same thing was happening to other out-of-date satellite tracking stations around the world.

Some were turned over to foreign governments; others were bulldozed. The Rosman site appeared doomed as well, but was saved in 1999 by a group of astronomers who formed a not for profit foundation.

The Forest Service agreed to trade the Rosman site for another piece of property in Western North Carolina, and the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute was born.

"The Forest Service was about to bulldoze the place," said Powers." They were spending a lot of money keeping the place up, and they just couldn't do it any more."

The Institute offers its facilities for research, study and educational access to optical and radio astronomy. PARI staffers had to refit the massive 85-foot satellite dishes to study the electromagnetic waves from deep space. For one thing, satellites move a lot faster than stars.

 "A lot of what we're doing in the astronomy realm here is looking for the physics of molecules out in space," said Osborne." We think of it as a big puzzle. We look at the chemistry of what's out there, and we try to figure out what would make the signals we're seeing."

He worked in satellite communications development in Atlanta before he took his new job with PARI, which he obviously finds more compelling.
PARI  for research, study and educational access to optical and radio astronomy, near Brevard, N.C.
"Radio astronomy is listening for signals so weak that it takes equipment much more challenging to build," he said.

He sees PARI's best use as an extension of universities and colleges that can't afford their own astronomical facilities.

"So we become an extension for many, many colleges," Osborne said. "Even on the K-12 level, we make [the equipment] available over the Internet, so they have some interaction with technology that they wouldn't normally."

In a sense, this 200-acre site in the middle of the Pisgah National Forest has come full circle - only better.

Back in the 1960s, students could tour the buildings and look at the satellite dishes and telescopes, leaving with tingling thoughts of far-off galaxies.

Now, college students are at those same telescopes. And this time, they are part of the search to find what lies in deepest space.

Staff at PARI welcome volunteers and need donations of equipment, time and money to continue their new mission. To find out ways you can get involved, visit their Web site at HTTP://PARI.EDU

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