A personal account & photoglimpse of the inauguration of SALT
The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) was inaugurated on 2005 November 10 by President Thabo Mbeki. Wearing his hat as editor of MNASSA, Auke Slotegraaf attended the inauguration of SALT as a member of the press. An amateur journalist amongst hard-core reporters soon learns a thing or two – about science communication, politics and the power of a press badge.
Over a thousand invited guests attended the SALT inauguration, arriving in Sutherland by bus on the morning of the 10th. The forty-strong press contingent, both local and international, were bussed to Sutherland the previous day, departing from SAAO at midday. As I was attending the African Astronomical History Symposium, I joined the group later by car.
It had been a while since my last visit to Sutherland, and I was anxious to see the huge telescope. The 100km drive from the Matjiesfontein-turnoff on the N1 to the town of Sutherland in the Northern Cape was, as always, breath-taking. A previous visit, a night-ride by motorbike, was memorable not only because the road is ideal for biking, but also because it ended up in the police station, where 'Oom Boet', the friendly station commander, let us sleep in the officer's lounge. This trip, however, was even more memorable: on one account for the road-kill, on another for catching sight of SALT's massive dome in the distance. On a usual trip, you might encounter a single wild animal accidentally hit by a car. On this trip, I counted eight – evidence of heavy traffic in the last few days. About 30 km from Sutherland, the flat koppie on which the telescopes stand can be seen in the distance. The dome of the 74-inch telescope can usually be glimpsed as a white speck. SALT's dome, however, is unmistakeable.
I joined up with the rest of the media at the welcoming function in the NG Church hall at dusk. A presentation by the Northern Cape Tourism board followed, introducing the new "Walking with Ancestors" tourism route (see box). Foreign accents were commonplace during the question time.
After a delicious Karoo-style "boerekos" dinner in a shed next to the rugby pavilion, the journalists retired for the night to the school hostel.
Light cirrus cloud greeted us the next morning as we gathered on top of the Sutherland koppie for a quick breakfast of meatballs, boerewors and a ham sandwich. The camera crews then set up their equipment for the press conference in SALT's spectrometer room, which had been converted to a press room fitted with spotlights and a professional sound-system. Dr Rob Adam, Director-General of the Department of Science & Technology (DST), coordinated the meeting. Present were Mr Mosibudi Mangena (Minister of Science and Technology), Mr Derek Hanekom (Deputy Minister), Dr Khotso Mokhele (Chairperson of the Board of SALT), Prof Phil Charles (SAAO Director) and members of the Executive Council of the Northern Cape Province. After brief statements, questions were taken, and the sensitive issue of a proposed golf estate development in the town of Sutherland was addressed. From the carefully-worded replies I gathered that this development would not be allowed to interfere with the observatory's operation.
Equally carefully-worded was Prof Charles' reply to a question on how SALT would be used to communicate with extraterrestrials. He explained that a radio telescope might best be used in such communications, but that unfortunately SALT was an optical telescope.
With their first stories in hand, the press eagerly sought the "media room", which was actually the dome of the 74-inch telescope, where internet access points were available for the transmission of reports back to the press rooms.
Meanwhile, a security team swept the SALT dome in anticipation of the arrival of the President, after which the Minister and other officials joined the international VIP's and scientists in the spectrometer room. They were met by Premier Dipuo Peters of the Northern Cape and enjoyed refreshments while waiting for President Mbeki.
After uploading their reports, the journalists joined the large group of invited guests who had gathered outside a huge marquee erected next to the astronomer's hostel at the foot of the plateau. An amazing array of wines and other beverages kept everyone entertained.
The proximity of a police helicopter announced the arrival of the President at the site and his cavalcade – the Presidential Mercedes with two black SUVs – was seen zipping up the plateau to SALT. There, the President and a selected entourage, which included the Ministers, the Premier, Prof Charles, Dr David Buckley (SALT Project Scientist) and a security detail, went on a tour of the facility. After being shown the control room and the telescope from the ground floor, the President and Minister Mangena, accompanied by Dr Buckley and two body guards, ventured on to the catwalk for a closer inspection.
By this time, the guests were seated in the marquee, where two huge video displays showed a documentary on SALT. Dr Rob Adam, who was the master of ceremonies, addressed the guests and shortly after, Minister Mangena and his delegation arrived. They were followed by President Mbeki, who was greeted with a welcoming round of applause. Dr Adam requested the guests to stand for the National Anthem, sung by a choir of local primary school learners. When the guests were seated, an accomplished ghorro player performed a short piece on this traditional San string instrument.
Guests were welcomed by Premier Peters and were then addressed by Prof John Wiley, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin. The entire proceedings were televised and relayed to the two video displays, so that everyone had a clear view of events. Speeches were also made by Dr. Mokhele and Minister Mangena, who then introduced the President.
"Even those of us who know nothing about astronomy," the President said, "have awaited this day with great anticipation, feeling, perhaps instinctively, that this giant eye in the Karoo would tell us as yet unknown and exciting things about ourselves."
He expressed his wishes that the bid to host the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope would be successful, further enhancing the complex of astronomical establishments in Southern Africa: SALT, HESS in Namibia, and the planned Karoo Array Telescope (KAT).
"This observatory is a place dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge," he said. "Its sole purpose is the discovery of the unknown, and therefore the further liberation of humanity from blind action informed by superstition that derives from failure to fathom the regularities and imperatives of the infinite natural world."
"Out of this place, enveloped by the quiet peace of the Karoo and its starlit skies, must and will come the message that thought is humanity's step-ladder out of Hades – that ignorance is nothing but condemnation to live for eternity in the world inhabited by the souls of the dead."
"By communicating to all humanity the evolving and ever-changing truths about the universe, this observatory, empowered by cutting edge science, engineering and technology, and staffed by the most excellent and daring inquiring minds, must help to free us from the seductive grip of the astrologers and the false consciousness that wears the fine apparel of pernicious common sense."
In closing, the President said: "I am especially privileged to command the Southern African Large Telescope to begin its work and focus its eye on the infinite and vibrant depths of outer space and time past. Let the work begin!" So saying, he unveiled the inaugural plaque. Amidst loud applause and camera flashes, SALT was officially on-line.
After SALT gifts were given to the President, he left the marquee accompanied by Dr. Mokhele and Minister Mangena. The guests were then treated to a second cultural event, a reading by the Afro-poetess Chigo, after which they left the marquee for another round of refreshments. A flyover by three military aircraft added to the festivities.
In an amazingly brief time, the chairs were cleared from the marquee and replaced by trestle tables decked with scrumptious food. After lunch, groups were bussed up to SALT for a tour of the telescope, before starting out on the four-hour return-trip to Cape Town.
Having never attended the opening of a giant telescope, or being a guest at a Presidential inauguration, I had no idea what to expect. I came away with a sense of excitement, anticipation and national pride – a world-class event fit for a world-class telescope.