Having narrowly survived the flames of the Bobcat Fire last month following five months of closure prompted by the pandemic, the Mount Wilson Observatory is asking for community support to continue its 116-year-old mission of science and discovery.
Operating on a shoe-string budget, the last six months have been tough ones for the famous mountaintop facility, where some of the 20th century’s greatest astronomers have expanded human understanding of the universe.
After noticing an outpouring of support from the community as the observatory was threatened by fire, Mount Wilson Observatory Board of Trustees Chair and CEO Same Hale, grandson of observatory founder George Hale, said the nonprofit organization decided to try reaching out directly to the public for financial support.
“Our season was eliminated because of COVID and we’ve been completely shut down,” he said. The observatory remains closed due to the pandemic, as well as extreme fire risk in the area.
Normally, the viewing season kicks off in April, just as the pandemic was taking a foothold in Southern California.
Lectures, concerts, tours and the rental of the observatory’s famous 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes have been impossible, Hale said.
“That’s when we generate the revenue to run the mountain and keep it going,” he said. “That rug was pulled out from under us.”
“So when the fires happened and we got the incredible outpouring of concern, friendship and love, from Southern California and the world about Mount Wilson, we said, ‘Maybe this is an opportunity to try something that we’ve never tried before in terms of raising some money to fill some of these gaps that we have in our budget.”
To that end, the observatory has launched a campaign on GoFundMe, which can be viewed at charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/mount-wilson-future-fund.
“We’d never done a GoFundMe campaign before, and so we figured, well, we’ll give it a shot. So it was really an experiment,” Hale said.
The fund had garnered well over $17,000 as of Friday.
Priorities for the donations included continued fire mitigation and restoration of terrain; “dark-sky appropriate lighting;” new bathrooms, refurbishment of the residential quarters used by great scientist like Edwin Hubble and Albert Einstein, known as “The Monastery;” expansion of educations programs; support of cultural programs; and “auditorium and museum renovations to bring these facilities into the 21st century,” Mouth Wilson representatives said in a written statement.
As the facility is well over a century old, “There’s deferred maintenance up there like you wouldn’t believe, so we’re constantly refurbishing buildings,” Hale said.
A renovation of the famed 100-inch telescope, first installed in 1904 and used by Hubble to discover the existence of galaxies and the expansion of the universe, is nearing completion, he said.
Mount Wilson Observatory is self-funded, receiving no support from any government or educational institutions, Hale said.
“We’ve had some private funding from some foundations, some grants that we’ve gotten, but basically, we’re a bootstrap operation and supported by the people that love the mountain and believe in it,” he said. “We run very lean, indeed. We only have five paid people in the whole of Mount Wilson Institute… Almost everything up there is done by volunteers.”
Hale said he expected things to turn around soon for the observatory.
“Once we get up and running, we’re going to be able to generate revenue again,” he said.
But going out of business was out of the question, according to Hale.
“We would never let that happen,” he said. “We will never close it.”
Hale added that he was encouraged to see so many contributions — more than 150 as of Friday — already pouring in from such a wide variety of people.
“The great thing, we think, is that most of those people have never given to Mount Wilson before and haven’t been associated with Mount Wilson,” he said. “So we are attracting a bunch of, interested people who have never been donors before, which is wonderful.”
While public activities at the observatory are currently on hold, “We are developing technological capabilities that enable us to broadcast our programs as well as images of space through our great telescopes to an even wider and more diverse community,” according to the statement from Mount Wilson Observatory.
“You can make a difference, just like Hale, and Hubble and Einstein. You can help create a 21st century future for Mount Wilson Observatory,” the statement said. “ Please do what you can, so that we can continue to offer our STEAM programs to students, to provide our concerts, lectures, tours, and telescope viewings to the public, and to be a careful and conscientious protector of our scientific treasures and surrounding grounds.
More information on the Mount Wilson Observatory is available online at mtwilson.edu.