'Full Measure': The No-Fi zone

    The G.B.T. (National Radio Astronomy Observatory)

    Just three hours from the nation's capital, two unthinkable acts are occurring.

    One, an unlikely partnership with the Russians, and two -- prepare yourself -- the government is cutting ties to your cellphone. "Full Measure" news correspondent Joce Sterman traveled to the No-Fi zone.

    In the digital age, we live on an electronic leash, and sometimes we dream of a life not on a tether.

    You'll find it in this town of fewer than 200 people. Green Bank, West Virginia is the kind of place where chickens roam free, country songs spill from the lone AM station, and the sound of crickets is drowned out only by a passing car on a country road.

    It's not the shelter of the mountain hills that shields Green Bank from the intrusions of technology. It is the demands of the technology itself.

    Dave Jonese: "Their life does not revolve around that technology, that cellphone."

    Life for Sheriff Jonese and the rest of Green Bank revolves around a monstrosity in white you can see for miles: a 17 million-pound telescope installed 15 years ago. It is the crown jewel of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory built in 1956.

    The observatory, specifically its Green Bank telescope, the G.B.T., is king, dictating life since its installation back in 2000. It is the largest steerable radio telescope in the world, listening for faint radio waves in deep space. The truth is out there, but the telescope has a few demands of its own.

    Jonese: "They knock on the door and say, 'You're bothering our scope.'"

    And by bother, we mean breaking the universal rule of Green Bank -- no one interferes with the G.B.T. It sits near the heart of the United States National Radio Quiet Zone, 13,000 square miles in three states where transmissions are limited.

    In Green Bank, though, the rules are even stronger, so much that people there can't use cellphones, Wi-Fi, or even a microwave oven. Finding someone requires dialing back the clock to 1980.

    Sterman at payphone: "Whose height is this? I know people get taller through history, but this is a big difference for 30 years."

    Mike Holstein: "Signals are sent directly up here to these computers."

    This technology is so advanced, but so sensitive, that it picks up signals so weak they're in scientific terms we don't even understand.

    Sterman: "What does it mean for me?"

    The future of the telescope is as much a mystery as the universe it explores. The National Science Foundation has funded the facility, and its $12-14 million annual budget, since its inception. In 2012, it announced it was "divesting," cutting back money starting in 2017.

    Karen O'Neil: "We absolutely worry about the future of the G.B.T. all the time."

    O'Neil is the director of the facility. She's an astrophysicist who understands the theory of relativity between science and budget.

    O'Neil: "It's not that the National Science Foundation wants to shut us down. They don't wish to shut us down. It's that the National Science Foundation has a budget that is only so big, and within that budget they've got to figure out how to make scientists around the country as happy as possible and be able to pursue new ideas at the same time they're trying to keep old ones there."

    The lifeline for the telescope may come from an unlikely source, one that would not have been possible during the Cold War. But funding gaps create fast friendships.

    Yuri Milner: "There are about 200 billion galaxies."

    Milner, a Russian billionaire, is pumping cash into the facility, $10 million alone on a recent equipment upgrade. His project, Breakthrough Initiatives, is committed to using 20 percent of G.B.T.'s time for the next decade. The project is setting its sights on the search for life beyond the stars.

    Milner: "I can report today that a few days ago we did our first observation and did not find anything. But ..."

    Now the idea is to embrace the world of "pay-as-you-go" science, soliciting partners to keep the G.B.T. scanning the skies for decades to come.

    Sterman: "There was a space race -- people looked at the Russians as the enemy. Now, they're the savior of a facility like this?"

    O'Neil: "It's a funny world out there. If you look back at the 1950s, back when this organization came into being, we were racing with the Soviet Union. We were trying to get there first. So, I think we're in a wonderful new era, where instead of racing up against other countries and organizations to try and get there first, it seems like people are cooperating to try and get the best possible science out of what we have."

    News In Photos

      Loading ...