Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

VIEWPOINT: Invest in Space Studies


Georgetown University has a storied history with astronomy — yet since 1972, that history’s only legacy has been in the neglected, aging Heyden Observatory.

Founded in 1841 as part of a nascent movement across America to privately fund observatories to match those found in Europe, the Heyden Observatory has been home to more than 180 years of astronomical research, from Fr. James Curley, S.J.’s calculations of the latitude and longitude of Washington, D.C. in 1846 to Fr. Paul McNally, S.J.’s award-winning solar eclipse photography in 1937. But when Georgetown’s astronomy department — once one of the strongest in the world — shut down in 1972 due to light pollution and funding issues, the observatory became less a teaching tool than a dusty landmark.

For 52 years, the Georgetown University Astronomical Society (GUAS) has been charged with operating and maintaining the site, which is the third oldest college observatory in the United States. While GUAS’ weekly Tuesday observing nights have served as a tool for inspiration and space awareness on campus, the society’s primary mission has always been to preserve and renovate the Heyden Observatory. Despite our best efforts, Georgetown has left the observatory to deteriorate for decades — until now.

This semester, the Heyden Observatory is closed for limited renovations, but its future is still uncertain. The university has yet to decide on Heyden Observatory’s future and the renovation’s scope.  

As members of GUAS, one thing is clear to us: Heyden Observatory should not be left to crumble. Instead, Georgetown should invest in space resources, with the observatory becoming a center for space studies on campus. 

In our petition, GUAS and the Georgetown University Space Initiative (GUSI), a student-run organization that is working to encourage the prioritization of space studies in university curricula, call on the university to increase course offerings about space and plan for the observatory’s future as a place of learning and science policy. This ambitious plan seeks to respect the historic observatory’s heritage while equipping it with the tools and facilities needed to serve a modern, innovative academic community. 

We envision the historic observatory as the home of an interdisciplinary space studies institute, hosting researchers and educating the next generation of space leaders — in policy, business, science and more. The world needs science policy leaders, and a space studies master’s program centered around the observatory would help this. GUAS, GUSI and members of Georgetown’s faculty have proposed a program for masters’ students in the School of Foreign Service (SFS) next year, with hopes to later expand the program into an undergraduate concentration and minor. Space touches every facet of our modern lives; Georgetown should seize the moment to become the school of choice for leaders shaping the future of humanity in space.

This idea is nothing new at Georgetown, an institution on the cutting edge of science policy: the SFS’ Science, Technology and International Affairs major has quickly grown in popularity, becoming one of the SFS’ largest majors and now boasting a complementary master’s program. Student organizations focused on the intersection of science and policy, like GUSI and GUAS, have seen record attendance in recent semesters, and alumni from these science policy clubs have since gone on to become industry professionals, science communicators and congressional staffers.

Our plan also imagines Heyden Observatory as D.C.’s only public observatory. The observatory could be transformed into the beating heart of a STEM outreach program to D.C. schools, easing concerns surrounding the quality of available STEM education in the area. Students from every ward and walk of life in D.C.’s majority-minority classrooms could come to the third oldest functioning observatory in the nation and explore the wonders of the universe, just as the Jesuits did over a century and a half ago. 

Since the petition’s release on Nov. 13, 2023, over 230 students, alumni, faculty and industry professionals have signed on in support of our mission. GUAS hopes that the current renovations are not just an exercise in preserving a relic of history, but a movement to make Heyden the historic yet modern home of the Space Studies Institute. We envision a Georgetown campus at the forefront of space security, policy, sustainability and STEM outreach – with a fully equipped observatory for students to appreciate the wonders of the universe right from the Hilltop.

To learn more about the GUAS’ vision for the Observatory and Space Studies Institute proposal and to sign the petition, follow us and GUSI on Instagram @gtown_astro and @guspaceinitiative. For any questions, or if you’d like to get involved, contact us at [email protected]

Owen Chbani and Sophia Chang are both seniors in the School of Foreign Service.

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