The unique history of Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute

PARI is one of only three International Dark Sky-certified Parks in North Carolina — and it has fascinating ties to NASA and the Cold War.

A photo of the starry night sky at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute

Views of the night sky go for miles at PARI.

Photo by Tim Reaves

Deep in the heart of Pisgah National Forest, there’s a historic space research station with ties to NASA — and it’s one of only three International Dark Sky-certified Parks in North Carolina.

We’re talking about the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) — an isolated 200+ acre area that first opened in 1963 as NASA’s Rosman Tracking Station.

In 1967, its 26-meter radio telescope received one of the world’s first color photos of the full Earth from space, as well as a TV transmission. And for decades, the station played a vital role in the space program, communicating with satellites and manned space flights such as Project Gemini and Project Apollo as they passed over the East Coast.

Rosman Space Station Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute

A photo of the Rosman NASA Tracking Station under construction back in the 1960s.

Photo courtesy of the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room

During the Cold War, the station came under control of The Department of Defense and was used mainly to intercept Russian satellite communicationsand as a cheeky joke, one of the telescopes had a smiley face painted on it to keep things “friendly.”

When the Department of Defense closed the facility in 1995, the Rosman Station appeared to be at the end of its rope, with the federal government proposing to dismantle it. But just in the nick of time (1998, to be exact) NC residents Don and Jo Cline stepped in and purchased the site, thus creating the PARI we know today.

Smiley Face Telescope Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute

The “smiley” face on PARI’s radio telescope was painted as a joke during the height of the Cold War.

Photo courtesy of PARI

Since then, a staff of professional astronomers, engineers, and other scientists have tended to this non-profit, adding features like the optical telescope, solar power, and two high-precision photographic plate scanners named “GAMMA-I and GAMMA-II” along the way.

Interested in exploring this curious site? Check out the visitor page and learn more about its educational programs.

Additionally, if you’d like to support PARI’s mission of inspiring the next generation of scientists, the nonprofit has recently launched a $500,000 fundraising campaigncontribute here.

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