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Hein Hvatum, 85; Engineered Telescope to the Heavens

Hein Hvatum was acting director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and later sought to protect radio frequencies.
Hein Hvatum was acting director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and later sought to protect radio frequencies. (Family Photo)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hein Hvatum, 85, who in the 1970s and '80s supervised construction of one of the world's most powerful radio observatories, died of cancer May 22 at his home in Charlottesville.

In 1974, Dr. Hvatum assumed responsibility for construction of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array, an arrangement of radio telescopes in central New Mexico (perhaps best known to the general public for its appearance in the 1997 movie "Contact," with Jodie Foster). Completed in 1982, the Very Large Array is used by astronomers 24 hours a day to gather data from celestial objects.

Dr. Hvatum (pronounced VAH-toom) was responsible for computing, antenna design and electronics for the $78 million project, the largest the National Science Foundation had funded at the time.

He had to deal with a number of knotty technical challenges, including how to transport 27 fragile, 100-foot-tall antennas and deploy them in a precise Y-shaped arrangement across the New Mexico desert. A boyhood interest in trains suggested a solution: transporting the 230-ton antennas on railroad tracks via a specially designed vehicle, which the Very Large Array staff dubbed "Hein's Trein."

In 1997, the New Mexico Society of Professional Engineers honored the project as one of the top engineering achievements in New Mexico in the previous half-century.

Dr. Hvatum was born in Tonsberg, Norway, and displayed an early interest in trains, planes, electronics and engineering. His father, one of the first electrical engineers in Norway, had been trained in Germany, spoke fluent German and was able to help the Norwegian Resistance throughout World War II.

During the German occupation of Norway, the younger Hvatum hid in underbrush and took photographs of military aircraft landing and taking off at Oslo Airport, Fornebu. He was never caught.

He graduated from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim in 1950 and received a doctorate in electronic engineering from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden in 1954.

He first came to NRAO, based in Green Bank, W.Va., as a research associate in 1958. After a brief sojourn in Sweden, he returned in 1961 as an NRAO electronics engineer. He became head of the electronics division the next year, associate director of technical services in 1972 and was responsible for the completion of the 36 mm telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.

Dr. Hvatum became acting director at NRAO in 1984 and project manager for the Very Long Baseline Array the next year. He retired in 1987.

In retirement, he was a ham radio operator and was active with both national and international groups seeking to protect radio frequencies for radio astronomy. A member of the Albemarle Amateur Radio Club, he organized a number of community emergency preparedness drills. He was an avid cyclist.

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Randi Hvatum of Charlottesville; two children, Kjeld Hvatum of St. Louis and Elisabeth Hvatum of Charlottesville; and five grandchildren.

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