Redefining A Mission: The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory on the Move

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  • Article describes the circumstances surrounding the 1955 relocation of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) from Washington, D.C., to the Harvard College Observatory (HCO) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The process of deciding to change the SAO's location, as well as to adjust the direction of its astrophysics research programs, particularly in the area of solar variation measurement, began in late 1953 when Smithsonian Secretary Leonard Carmichael started the search for a SAO director to replace retiring Loyal B. Aldrich. Throughout the process, scientists lobbied Carmichael with competing views on how solar variation should be studied, and suggested various candidates for the position on the basis of their beliefs in the matter.
  • Carmichael was sensitive to the politics of the situation and took the individuals involved into account during his decision-making process, which resulted in his seeking a site, director and plan that would provide for the training of astrophysicists and also emphasize theoretical research. In early 1955, he selected the HCO site instead of a Colorado location for the SAO, and picked Fred L. Whipple, a Harvard astronomer, as Aldrich's successor. Carmichael's action created a partnership to advance scientific research of interest to government agencies and universities, but his hope that solar variation research would also be maintained was set aside due to changes in national and scientific priorities which shifted SAO interest and resources to satellite tracking and other related fields.


  • Aldrich, Loyal Blaine 1884-1965
  • Whipple, Fred Lawrence 1906-
  • Carmichael, Leonard 1898-1973
  • Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
  • Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
  • Harvard College Observatory


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


A "References" section with 51 entries follows the article.

Contained within

Journal for the History of Astronomy Vol. xxi (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • International Geophysical Year, 1957-1958
  • Astrophysicists
  • Astrophysics
  • Satellite Tracking Program
  • Secretaries

Physical description

p. 137-153

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