While drone footage captured the moment in excruciating detail, in truth, the disintegration of the telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico began far before this cinematic end.
It is tempting to blame the demise of Arecibo on the physical damage it sustained earlier in 2020, when an auxiliary metal cable snapped – perhaps a delayed consequence of Tropical Storm Isaias or the earthquakes that shook Puerto Rico. But Arecibo’s downfall was, in reality, caused by years of financial struggles.
But for all its achievements, U.S. commitment to Arecibo began to falter in 2006. The National Science Foundation, which supported Arecibo, implemented a 15% budget cut that year across its Division of Astronomical Sciences. Arecibo was among the first facilities on the chopping block, despite its continued productivity.
The previous year, the NSF had announced it was preparing to reallocate funds between existing facilities in order to initiate “new activities.” These initiatives included the funding and development of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile, starting in 2003.
#WhatAreciboMeansToMe, a hashtag on Twitter, has collected hundreds of stories from locals and tourists, astronomers and enthusiasts alike. Puerto Rican voices are loud here, many recounting childhood memories of hiking up the trail to the Ángel Ramos Visitors’ Center.
In Latin America, infrastructure projects are often tied to ideas about economic development – a potential answer to solve a country’s ills. In this context, to watch a prized facility literally crumble, as the United States retracted its financial involvement, seems like nothing less than abandonment.
In the case of Arecibo, these disputes flared at the end rather than at the beginning. But a similar lack of interest in how scientific research facilities fit the place they inhabit is clear. In my view, it is time to begin discussions beyond the scientific importance of research facilities. Planners must address their full life cycles and their impact on local communities.