NOAO < NEWS < Aden Meinel 1922-2011

Aden Meinel delivering his talk “Why Kitt Peak?” at the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Kitt Peak National Observatory, 22 March 2010

Dr. Aden B. Meinel, 1922-2011

In the early 1950s, when the US astronomical community started talking about establishing a National Astronomical Observatory, the committee formed to guide the effort selected Aden Meinel, an astronomer then at Yerkes Observatory, to lead the project. He knew that the skies in the southwest were the most satisfactory, so his small team concentrated on the mountains there. In May, 1955, Meinel arranged for his colleague Helmut Abt to fly in a small plane from McDonald Observatory in west Texas to assess the mountain summits. Based on that survey, Kitt Peak looked promising, and a visit to the summit was made in March, 1956.

Support from the NSF allowed the establishment of a small office in Phoenix from which the site survey was conducted. Besides Kitt Peak, located on what is now the Reservation of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a few other mountains near Kingman and Holbrook, Arizona, made up the short list. After obtaining permission from the [then] Papago Tribe to access Kitt Peak, in mid-1956 some small telescopes and seeing monitors were installed there, as well as on some of the other sites. Kitt Peak quickly emerged as the favorite. Aden soon assembled a large team to design and construct the first set of telescopes, and, with impressive foresight, plan an eventual space astronomy program. Following a serious dispute with the governing Board of Directors, Aden resigned on the day of the formal observatory dedication in March, 1960, and some months later left the organization for the University of Arizona, where he became Director of the Steward Observatory, and also founded the Optical Sciences program. Aden’s partnership with his wife, Marjorie Pettit Meinel, was a very important collaboration in his career. For an article about their work, see “The Meinel Partnership and the Founding of the National Observatory” by H. Abt and B. Jannuzi.

NOAO is profoundly grateful to Aden Meinel for his vision and wisdom that led to the founding of Kitt Peak National Observatory, and ultimately the entire National Optical Astronomy Observatory. Generations of astronomers have benefitted from the availability of this resource, as evidenced in the awarding of this year’s Nobel prize in physics for the discovery of dark energy, which made significant use of the NOAO facilities.

Comments submitted by friends and colleagues:

From William S. Smith, Jr, President, Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy

On behalf of myself and the entire AURA Board, we wish to recognize a true giant in the field of astronomy. Aden Meinel was the first director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory and a pioneer in making cutting edge observing facilities open to the general community. His contributions to public astronomy have been long-lasting and will serve to guide us in the future. Astronomy has lost a great leader.


I hired both Aden and Marjorie from the Optical Sciences Center to work with me at JPL about 1982 on a mission study we called Large Deployable Reflector (LDR), which laid the foundations for today’s JWST. We were asked by Dr. Lew Allen, JPL director to come up with new ideas for breakthrough astronomy and we laid the ground work for what is now the NASA exoplanet program. Aden & Marjorie retired from JPL in 1992 after 10 years, when he was 70.

Jim Breckinridge


I was a graduate student at Steward from 1966-71. I arrived just as Bart Bok moved to Tucson and became the new Director. Aden was busy (always) with the new telescope project, as well as getting the Optical Sciences group going, so he always seemed to be on the move.

A handful of us took a class in Spectral Classification from him. He was actively promoting grating spectrographs everywhere, so we were learning to classify from grating spectra, not prism spectra like those used to define the Morgan-Keenan system. We met around a table in Aden’s office, but one morning he was late, eventually rushing in. He explained that he’d been up late the night before working with the engineers designing the telescope. The day before they had received word from Corning (I think) that the primary mirror blank for what was supposed to be an 88-inch cell had com eout of the oven at about 91.5 inches. They had spent hours pouring over the mechanical drawings trying to figure out how much of the extra diameter they could keep - a few inches make a big difference at the outer edge! That’s how Steward ended up with a 90 inch telescope, now called the Bok Telescope.

John Glaspey


Aden Meinel was also the pioneer in the large scale (GigaWatt) development of solar energy for developed countries like the US. He and Marjorie were responsible for shifting the focus of solar from small scale, good only for developing countries, to large scale electric production. Their 1971 paper, “Is It Time For A New Look At Solar Energy?” (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Oct 1971) and following solar R&D efforts led the way for today’s explosion of solar commercialization. I was proud to be one of Aden’s students and collaborators. It was through Aden and Marjorie that I met my wife, Cynthia, who was Aden’s secretary at the UA OSC. Later they would be Godparents to our daughter Laura. They both were so important to so many fields and to so many people.

Donald E. Osborn


In the early 1960s Roger Lynds and myself were testing various electronic imaging devices to make use of the superior quantum efficiency of photocathodes. We were somewhat confounded in this effort by Aden Meinel designing and building ever faster Schmidt photographic cameras. The competition was eventually won, hands down, by CCDs. But it was a fun time.

Bill Livingston
Roger Lynds


I took a class from him, “Solar Energy and Society” in the early 1970’s — I still have his textbook, “Power for the People” on my bookshelf. His class was the most memorable of my classes at the U of A — in fact, I was just talking about the class a couple weeks ago. Dr. Meinel talked about everything from solar power to hydrogen-based transportation to the elemental makeup of the stars. The class was years ahead of its time, and got me started on a lifetime interest solar energy and the environmental impacts of energy production.

~Dr. Larry Ames

BTW: he had solar collector experiments on the roof of the Optical Sciences building. On the door at the top of the stairs was a sign warning about the intense radiation. Open the door and you’d find yourself out in sunlight on the roof: the sunlight was the “intense radiation”!


We invite you to submit your memories of Dr. Meinel.