The Journey To Palomar America's first journey into space

The Journey to Palomar premiered November 2008.
Check Local Listings to see when it's airing on your local PBS station.

It has been said that George Ellery Hale did for the entire universe what Christopher Columbus did only for the Earth. Most people have never heard of Hale, but his life and work had a profound effect on the development of 20th century science in America, most notably—astronomy.

The Journey to Palomar traces the epic personal and professional quest of the Chicago-born astronomer to build the four largest telescopes of the 20th century, culminating with the 20-year effort to build the million-pound telescope on Palomar Mountain, a project considered the "moon shot" of the 1930s and 1940s.

Again and again, Hale battled with powerful backers — men like Charles Yerkes, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to have them contribute millions of dollars to his vision of American astronomy. Hale's giant telescopes enabled the most profound astronomical discoveries since Galileo and Copernicus. They also laid the foundation for the preeminence of American science, today's marvels like the Hubble Space Telescope and tomorrow's super giant telescopes.

George Ellery HaleGeorge Ellery Hale is considered the "father of astrophysics."

Hale's singular drive pushed him beyond most men's limits — and ultimately, his own. His unusually fragile constitution was no match for his "Chicago ambition," as historian Kevin Starr explains. He struggled to overcome a nervous condition commonly referred to at the time as Neurasthenia, which was brought on by overwork. Hale suffered a series of collapses, including frightening hallucinations. As author Richard Preston describes in the film, "Hale's mental problems are very much a part of his creative genius, his brilliance."

By the time he was 50, Hale had already built the world's biggest telescope three times in succession, founding the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin and Mount Wilson Observatory above Pasadena, which newsreels hailed as "the scientific eye of America." At age 60, an emotionally exhausted Hale began his greatest masterpiece. Once again, the project would have to conquer engineering problems thought to be impossible, such as making a curved mirror 17 feet across, smooth to within two-millionths of an inch. The Palomar 200-inch telescope would unite America's industrial giants in an all-out, two-decade-long effort to build Hale's "perfect machine" during the worst years of the Great Depression and World War II. The mammoth 200-inch telescope on Palomar mountain, near San Diego, was finally dedicated in 1948 as the "Hale Telescope." Hale had died ten years earlier without ever seeing his "perfect machine." The 500-ton Hale Telescope, built by a man born just after the Civil War, reigned supreme in the world until 1993 and is still used for cutting-edge science today.

The Greatest Discoveries since Galileo and Copernicus

The Palomar Hale TelescopeThe Palomar Hale Telescope's 17-foot mirror disc was polished to an accuracy of two-millionths of an inch.

Hale's first giant telescope, the great Yerkes refractor in Wisconsin, served as America's launch pad into space exploration. Here, the idea of combining physics and astronomy took hold. Hale wanted to know more than where stars were — he also wanted to know what they were and whether they were evolving over time, thus the "new" science of astrophysics began.

Most of the revolutionary astronomical discoveries of the first half of the 20th century occurred at Hale's Mount Wilson Observatory, such as Edwin Hubble's proof of galaxies outside the Milky Way and his confirmation of the expansion of the universe. Hale's own breakthrough — verifying the magnetic fields in sun spots — established magnetism as part of the cosmic framework. Using Hale's 60-inch telescope, Harlow Shapley verified our Sun's true location as on the outskirts, rather than at the center, of the Milky Way, completing the revolution started by Copernicus. At Mount Wilson, Albert Michelson accurately determined the speed of light. Walter Baade found that stars are born, "evolve" and die, passing along their materials to new generations of stars and even producing the elements comprising the human body.

In the second half of the 20th century, Walter Baade and present-day legends Allan Sandage and Jim Gunn all used Hale's Palomar 200-inch telescope to push the frontiers of knowledge even further. Baade measured the distance to Andromeda to be 2 million light-years, doubling the size of the known universe. Allan Sandage discovered a whole new class of objects he called "quasi-stellar radio sources," later shortened to "quasars." These were strange objects whose light Maarten Schmidt and Jesse Greenstein discovered was so far shifted into the red end of the spectrum that they were the most distant objects in the universe, — billions of light-years from earth, meaning they were also billions of years old. The size of the universe from Hale's "perfect machine" grew almost beyond human comprehension. Astronomers began to understand how galaxies formed, refining our understanding of the origin, nature and structure of the universe. In the 1980s, Jim Gunn and his Caltech colleagues developed CCD technology at Palomar to replace photographic plates. This new technology led to the Hubble Space Telescope and the incredible images of space we see today.

In Hale's Shadow: Telescopes of Tomorrow

Today, the next generation of even bigger telescopes are being planned by The Carnegie Observatories and Caltech — the very institutions Hale founded a century ago — and by NASA, which also owes a debt to Hale's work.

The James Webb Space Telescope will be located one million miles out in space to search for objects from the beginning of space and time. The ground-based Giant Magellan and Thirty-Meter Telescopes will correct for the blur of earth's atmosphere, giving them more than ten times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. When they are completed in the coming decade, all three telescopes will work together on the following and much more:

  • Search for the first galaxies that formed after the Big Bang.
  • Determine how galaxies evolved.
  • Observe the formation of stars and planetary systems.
  • Look for evidence of life on planets orbiting other stars.

Today's American astronomers are very excited about continuing Hale's quest and uncovering new questions and discoveries that will, once again, change our view of the cosmos.

The Journey to Palomar was written, produced and directed by Todd and Robin Mason of Mason Productions, Inc.

It was inspired by The Perfect Machine, by Ronald Florence.


The Journey to Palomar was funded in part by:


The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations

The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation


Educational components funded by:


Northrop Grumman Corporation

The James Webb Space Telescope

Honeywell International Inc.


Produced by:


Mason Productions, Inc.


© 2008 Mason Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Text by Todd and Robin Mason. Images courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, The Archives, California Institute of Technology, European Space Agency, NASA / STSci and Sarnoff Paramount Pathe Newsreels Images, Inc.

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