A journey from the horse-and-buggy to outer space

Herbert Weiss gave a talk at MIT’s Haystack Observatory in Westford.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“My father brought a radio into the house. It was in a big box. Lots of dials. The power to feed it came from wires that were down in the basement. And my job after school every day was to go down and charge the batteries.”

And so that’s what he did.

And then he did so much more.

“It was a time,” he said, “that when the radio stopped working, I had to look around to get it fixed. And I found a guy two blocks away. I put the radio in my little red wagon and literally carried it to his house.

“And there I saw a ham radio. And that started a whole new thing.”

It certainly did.

Herbert Weiss is the engineer who is largely responsible for the creation of the Haystack Observatory in Westford, something that even today looks like an artifact from a science fiction book, a place where they talk about bandwidth and photons and ancient mysteries.

A photograph on the wall (lower right) shows Herbert Weiss in February 1960.
A photograph on the wall (lower right) shows Herbert Weiss in February 1960. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A place that tracks satellites and orbital debris, whose futuristic frame is held together by 15 tons of nuts, bolts, and washers. This is Weiss’s place.

It is an outpost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about an hour west of the Cambridge campus on a hill where airplane pilots use its white dome as a navigational landmark.

Its radio telescope, finished in 1964, was used for both defense and science. Its work is the stuff of scientific legend.

It was instrumental in one of the tests that proved Einstein’s theory of relativity. It was used to map the lunar surface and to select the landing sites for the US Apollo missions to the moon.

“They were world-class instruments at their time,” Colin J. Lonsdale, the director of Haystack Observatory, told me last week at the observatory, where Weiss and his work were honored. “They could be used for defense-related missions but also for pure scientific research.

“The instruments at the site did some groundbreaking science work. And it was Herb Weiss who made that possible.”

As we toured the installation, Weiss listened as onlookers gazed at the 37-meter dish, a large and accurate telescope completed in 1964.

Weiss remembered how it all started.

He recalled the era of hydrogen bomb tests that chilled and frightened anyone paying attention.

“So, we were on the edge of a nuclear war,” he told his audience. “It’s hard to visualize now. It was very tense.”

Weiss said Millstone Hill was a national priority that required early, simple steps to complete.

“We told MIT we wanted this site,” he said. “About three weeks later, I was sitting in the office and here comes a man. Probably about 60 years old. Plaid shirt. Dungarees. Hunter’s cap. High boots.

“And he introduced himself as a member of one of the State Street legal firms. And it was his job to go find the title to the land we had staked out. And it was a tough job because the title was very vague.”

Eventually that procedural hurdle was surmounted. And then it was time to aim for the stars. And time to deal with eyebrow-raising publicity about using a lot of little needles wrapped in aluminum foil in space to be used as a radar relay point.

“The newspapers heard about using needles in space and this got tied to using Haystack as finding needles in space. We never could get rid of the name, even though we never liked it,” Weiss said.

But it stuck.

And its work became part of the scientific history book. Just like Herb Weiss.

“This place wouldn’t exist if he had not had the leadership and the vision and the drive to make it happen,” Lonsdale said. “The idea was to go out on a limb. We didn’t know whether this is possible but we’re going to give it a try.

“If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. If it does, we’ll have something extraordinary.”

And that, of course, is precisely what happened.

Philip J. Erickson, Haystack’s associate director and principal research scientist, called radar a fundamental technology that “essentially changed absolutely everything in the middle of the 20th century.”

“There were many technical problems in making that happen,” Erickson told me. “Herb is one of these people who said, ‘Let’s do it anyway.’ He built it, and then he was clever enough to have people around him and working who understood that that could be applied in multiple ways.

“And it very quickly became used for fundamental science.”

As we toured Haystack, Weiss wore a white-and-red striped shirt under a cranberry zip-up sweater and he stood in front of a white board with an equation written in green marker that was indecipherable to math avoiders like me.

But this much was clear: Here was a trailblazer.

“I planted a seed 60 or 70 years ago and now it’s blossomed,” he told me after the formal ceremonies. “It’s growing every year. And it’s going to continue to grow as far as I can see. It’s one of the great scientific spots in its field worldwide.”

Ruth Weiss, who has been married to Herb Weiss for 72 years, said her husband had so much fun at work that he resisted leaving it.

“He retired kicking and screaming,” she said. “We flew to Sweden and we bought a sailboat and we sailed around Europe for five years, living on this 42-foot sailboat. I was ready to retire. He was not. For years he said to me: ‘You took me away from the work that I love.’ Really. He would say this seriously. And I would say, ‘I did.’”

“He is a happy person,” she added later. “And people ask the secret of his longevity. They want to know: ‘What does he eat?’ And I say, ‘No. It’s just his happy personality.’”

As he toured the installation, Weiss’s 22-year-old grandson from Denver, Teddy Weiss, marveled at his grandfather’s legacy.

“You’re walking in the footsteps of someone who’s a trailblazer,” Teddy Weiss said. “Someone who at the height of his career was leading not just one domain but really the world. You look up to him and realize how he was a pioneer in this field.”

And then Teddy Weiss paused, smiled, and added — as perhaps only a grandson could:

“You really should ask him about his jokes. He’s got the best one-liners in the entire family. He’s the cream of the crop for that.”

And, as it turns out, for other things, too.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at [email protected].