PIKES PEAK, Colo. -- On a clear day, the view in all directions from the top of America's most famous mountain is breathtaking.
To the east, 8,000 feet below, lies the booming city of Colorado Springs, its suburbs sprawling northward toward Denver. To the southwest, more than 60 miles away, the snow-capped peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range stab the sky.
But Dimitri Klebe wants to extend the view from Pikes Peak in another direction -- up. The 39-year-old astrophysicist believes the top of the 14,110-foot mountain is an ideal location for a giant infrared telescope that could view distant galaxies with a resolution the Hubble Space Telescope could not match.
"We believe this is the best infrared site in the continental United States," Klebe says as he drives a visitor up the 19-mile highway to the summit. Infrared telescopes, he explains, can penetrate the clouds of gas that conceal the formation of stars and planets from conventional telescopes using the visible light spectrum.
Klebe and his growing contingent of allies face serious obstacles -- financial and environmental -- in their quest to turn the peak into a platform from which to scan the cosmos.
The proposal is not a sure bet, but neither is it a pipe dream. Pikes Peak Observatory Inc., the nonprofit group formed to promote the project, has assembled a high-powered board led by a former astronaut. Several Colorado colleges and universities support the idea, and the City Council of Colorado Springs, which controls the Pikes Peak highway, recently endorsed it.
Klebe, a professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs and the University of Denver, says a Pikes Peak observatory would pose no threat to the pre-eminence of the Hubble in observing and photographing visible objects. But he contends that a large ground-based telescope using modern technology could surpass the Hubble's results in the infrared part of the light spectrum, which is invisible to the naked eye or to conventional telescopes.
Ray Villard, spokesman for the Space Telescope Science Institute, says a Pikes Peak observatory would be "complementary" to the Hubble.
The space telescope, which the institute operates from its headquarters at the Johns Hopkins University, will always have distinct advantages because of the clarity of the view from space, Villard says. "On the ground, you're always compensating for the atmosphere. We have such a lofty perch we get spoiled by the crystal-clear view," he says.
The proposed Pikes Peak observatory would be above most of the blurring effects of the atmosphere, he says, and could be ideal for infrared research, which is on hold at the Hubble until its cooling system can be replaced in 2001.
Making news since 1806
Pikes Peak is named after the explorer Zebulon Pike, who set eyes on the mountain in 1806. Scientists are still making discoveries about the peak.
The mountain is a loner among Colorado's 54 "fourteeners" -- peaks more than 14,000 feet above sea level. Most line up shoulder to shoulder in ranges in the thinly populated western half of the state. Pikes Peak stands dramatically alone in the eastern half, 15 minutes from Colorado Springs and 1 1/2 hours from Denver.
The peak's eastern location is the main reason it is more famous than other Colorado mountains, 30 of which are higher. (Mount Elbert is the tallest in the state at 14,433 feet.) Pikes Peak was the first of the high Rockies many settlers would see, and its separation from other fourteeners made it appear taller than it is.
Klebe says the peak's geographical isolation contributes to its unmatched "seeing conditions." Because it is screened from rain by more western ranges, it is exceptionally dry, a crucial advantage for moisture-sensitive infrared telescopes.
Another advantage to Pikes Peak is what Klebe calls its "extraordinary access." It is one of two Colorado fourteeners with a road to the top and the only one to remain open year-round. The serpentine Pikes Peak highway, an engineering marvel, dates to an 1889 carriage road that was improved to carry cars in 1915.
About 600,000 visitors make the trip to the summit yearly, and Klebe believes an observatory could attract an additional 100,000 with educational and outreach programs. "We do not want to have an ivory tower for scientists here," he says.
Those plans have won approval from civic leaders but could complicate efforts to win environmental approval from the Forest Service, which controls the land at and near the summit.
Tim Grantham, a lands and minerals forester in the Forest Service's Colorado Springs office, says any observatory would have to comply with the agency's site plan for the summit.
That plan calls for any buildings at the summit, a national historic landmark above the 14,000-foot level, to be unobtrusive. A typical observatory design -- with a reflective rounded dome -- could run into problems, he says.
Sierra Club fears
The proposal also faces scrutiny from the Sierra Club. The group, which is concerned about damage to the summit's fragile tundra ecosystem, recently showed its muscle by forcing Colorado Springs to agree to make improvements to the unpaved road to curb gravel runoff.
James Lockhart, chairman of the Sierra Club's Pikes Peak Group, says the organization has taken no formal position on the observatory, but he expressed concern about increased traffic.
"We would be concerned if it increased visitorship, particularly if it did so before the road improvements," he says.
Supporters of the observatory project also face the challenge of raising the tens of millions of dollars it would cost to build the telescope and a facility to house it.
Ron Sega, chairman of the Pikes Peak nonprofit group, says there is no firm estimate of the project's cost. He says the group is conducting scientific research to verify the mountain's advantages.
"Every indication is positive at this point," says Sega, a former space-shuttle astronaut who is now dean of engineering at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Klebe, who has been pursuing the dream of a Pikes Peak observatory since the early 1990s, says he hopes to have an observatory operating within five years.
It would give astronomers an alternative to the Hubble, which can accommodate one of each four applications it receives. That's one reason Villard welcomes the Pikes Peak initiative.
"Any telescope on the ground that improves the viewing is an advantage because it means less people we have to turn away," the Hubble spokesman says.
Besides, Villard says, there's plenty of work for everyone.
"It's a big universe out there. We can only look at so much of it in a given year."