Bill Shupp Software engineer, photographer, musician, space geek

16Nov/120

Lean Telescopes: 25 Years at the Keck Observatory

Today is the last full day of our vacation to Hawaii.  In a couple of hours, we are heading up to the summit of Mauna Kea to see the telescopes and do some star gazing, something I've really been looking forward to given how amazing the night sky has been this week down here at sea level.  In preparation for the trip, I've been reading through some things I picked up at the Keck Observatory Visitor's center yesterday, and was struck by an article in the 2011 Annual Report titled "Reflections on 25 Years at Keck Observatory".  It was written by Deputy Director Hilton Lewis, who started at Keck in 1986 as a young telescope designer, and recalls the two fundamental decisions they made that led to its prominence.  First,"make the world's largest aperture telescope using a hexagonally tiled primary mirror", and second, "build it fast".

As someone who works in software engineering, and also has worked for a few companies now that embrace the lean startup approach, it was interesting to see many of these lean principles applied to a large engineering effort like the twin Keck telescopes.  And over 25 years ago!  Lewis goes on saying that the other main innovation was to "get it in the hands of the astronomers quickly. This principle required a razor sharp focus on what was truly essential, the resolve to get things done and the determination to keep costs under control. We had the funds, we had the ideas, we moved forward. Keck was designed and built in 7 years by a very small staff – and groundbreaking science immediately and continuously followed. Recognizing this success, the Keck Foundation immediately granted funds for the second telescope – a far-sighted move based on their faith in the team to deliver the goods."

The Keck I saw first light 1992, and the Keck II in 1996.  In 2011, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt, Adam G. Riess, ""for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae".  The Keck Observatory played a crucial role in this transformative research, according to Director Taft Armandroff.  Not bad.

Though the Keck had a lot more funding than your average startup (70M from the W. M. Keck Foundation), it's cool to see how some of the principles  currently associated with lean startups (MVP, get usage data as quickly as possible, aggressively keep costs under control) were clearly key to its early and continued success.  If you'd like to read the full article you can read the PDF excerpt here:  Reflections on 25 Years at Keck Observatory.  The original 2011 Annual Report is available here.

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