It Happened Here: NCAR and UCAR: History in a Nutshell, Part II
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April 1999
Happened Here
NCAR archivist Diane Rabson sheds light on our institutional history in this bimonthly series.

NCAR and UCAR: History in a Nutshell, Part II

A very different plan

On 8 March 1961, the Colorado Senate voted to allocate $250,000 to buy the land that was turned over to NSF for the Mesa Lab. Not every senator agreed with the plan, though. According to the Boulder Daily Camera, Carl Fulghum (R-Glenwood Springs) called the situation "disgusting," adding "we pay millions of dollars to the federal government and then have to bribe them to get some of it back." Sam Taylor (D-Walsenburg) suggested that NCAR be located near the summit of La Veta Pass in southern Colorado. In the Camera's words, Taylor said that northern Colorado "has more development than it knows what to do with." He added that southern Colorado should secede to form a new state called Huerfano. •

The bible of NCAR's creation is a modest, spiral-bound, blue-covered report entitled Preliminary Plans for a National Institute for Atmospheric Research. Released in 1959 and unofficially--even affectionately--dubbed the Blue Book, this was the second progress report issued while UCAR was still a committee and not yet a corporation. The report boldly advanced the rationale for the expansion of atmospheric research in the United States, a critical component being the establishment of an institute dedicated to that research.

The University Committee for Atmospheric Research had itself evolved out of the original Committee on Meteorology convened by the National Academy of Sciences in 1956. Like today, the members of the first UCAR were universities represented by individuals. Their chair was Henry Houghton (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), who had been a formidable presence in meteorology since the war.

During a time of intense, worldwide scientific activity that included the ambitious projects of the International Geophysical Year and the advent of the "space race" between the USSR and the United States, UCAR moved swiftly. With NSF underwriting, the committee organized 17 research planning conferences in 1958. At the meetings, approximately 150 research scientists (estimated to be about half the workforce doing basic research in meteorology in the U.S. at the time) were asked to analyze the "broad fundamental scientific problems" posed by the atmosphere and to voice their ideas about the kinds of research facilities that could "mount an effective attack" on such globally important problems. In his introduction to the Blue Book, Houghton noted the near-consensus from the conference participants on the need for a national institute "devoted exclusively to basic research."

The participants had a great deal to say about the focus of that research, envisioning programs that focused on four principal areas:

The often-eloquent Blue Book also functions as a clear and highly specific blueprint for action. Plans for research flights, computer and library facilities, personnel requirements, site and building considerations, and the all-important budget are presented in great detail. For example, the recommended number of permanent institute scientists was 108, with an additional support staff of 436 people, both technical and nontechnical. A full staff of the "desired competence" could be assembled in six years, according to the authors. And the total operating expense projected for those six years (fiscal years 1960-65)? A mere $38,042,000.

The Blue Book also reveals the Cold War climate in which it was conceived. A number of remarks note the "most serious competition" between the West and the Soviet Union in science and technology. In a fascinating appendix containing excerpts of a speech given in 1957, vice president Richard Nixon suggests the possibility of not only "estimating" the weather but being able to "control [it], bringing rain . . . at a time when and to a place where we want to bring it." Nixon further quotes nuclear scientist Edward Teller, who believed that "if the Soviet Union should make the breakthrough first, the ability to control the weather would have infinitely greater effect psychologically and . . . in the long range, economically, than any development or anything we might have thought of militarily."

This February marked the Blue Book's 40th anniversary. As we anticipate more anniversaries in 2000, it's striking to see how closely the plans and dreams of the Blue Book match the actual establishment of NCAR. While the full story might be the stuff of a master's thesis, a few tidbits regarding site selection from the very early records of the NCAR Director's Office shed light on the events of those days.

In 1960, after UCAR had been incorporated and Walter Orr Roberts selected as director, the UCAR Board of Trustees unanimously approved Boulder as the site for NCAR. Four geographic areas had originally been candidates. Boulder was in the first region, a quadrilateral bounded by Cheyenne, Wyoming; North Platte, Nebraska; Amarillo, Texas; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. The selection of Boulder rested in part on the appointment of Walt Roberts, since he wished to remain here and preserve his association with the High Altitude Observatory (of which he was then director) by affiliating HAO with the new center.

Members of the UCAR site committee flew to Boulder in August 1960 to inspect areas under consideration for construction. Sites in North Boulder and on Davidson Mesa had been eliminated by this time, but three areas in South Boulder--one north of Eldorado Springs, a second site on Shanahan Ridge, and the mesa then known as Table Mountain--were examined from a helicopter. By September, site consulting engineers would recommend Table Mountain for development, although there were significant issues regarding water supply because the mesa lay above the "blue line," a politically designated boundary to prevent rampant development of the foothills in Boulder.

Shown here is the Table Mountain site in South Boulder (now the Walter Orr Roberts Mesa) in an undated aerial photograph. The white outline indicates the property under consideration for NCAR. In the lower right, Dartmouth Avenue can be seen ascending west towards Kohler Reservoir (small rectangle). The joint site of the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) and the new NOAA building is just north of Dartmouth (right). Table Mesa Drive did not yet climb the mesa, so visitors to the mesa site had to hike, fly in on a helicopter, or drive up in a jeep.

The choice of Table Mountain was undoubtedly strategic, since the privately owned mesa appeared ripe for some kind of development. (Earlier ideas included construction of a luxury hotel or a drive-in movie theater on the mesa top). PLAN-Boulder County, a local conservation group, was eager to have UCAR acquire the site, seeing the laboratory as the development most consistent with their interest in land preservation. The group also hoped the land west of the mesa could be purchased and attached to city parkland in the foothills (where the Mesa Trail lies).

At the same time, the director of the State Water Conservation Board promised to furnish water to any site chosen by UCAR, including Table Mountain, noting that "there is certainly plenty of water in the Denver system." (The Denver Water Board had procured water rights up to Eldorado Springs.) Officials in Boulder also agreed to provide water from the city's system, pending a decision by the voters to amend the blue-line boundary to extend water and utilities to the NCAR site. The amendment was approved by Boulder voters on 31 January 1961 by a ratio of almost 4 to 1 (5,461 to 1,479). That spring the Colorado state legislature voted to purchase the mesa acreage from private landowners for $250,000 and to turn the land over to NSF for eventual construction of the Mesa Lab. With that, the die was cast for NCAR's physical presence in Boulder. •Diane Rabson, NCAR Archives

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