Photograph by Paul Kranzler and Andrew Phelps
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The Green Bank Telescope, often referred to by locals as "The Great Big Thing," is the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world. It stands 485 feet tall, and its main dish is 2.3 acres in size.

Photograph by Paul Kranzler and Andrew Phelps

To Study the Stars, This Town Went Off the Grid

Worlds collide in Green Bank, West Virginia, which sits deep inside a radio-free zone established in 1958.

Sometime in 1962 over Green Bank, West Virginia, a single-engine Cessna airplane dove through the clouds, nose-first, toward the ground.

The plane had appeared out of nowhere on an otherwise unremarkable, overcast day. As he hurtled downward, the pilot spotted an improbable landing strip that had been bulldozed into the surrounding fields. He pulled up, aimed toward the rustic runway, and somehow managed to safely land the aircraft. Trembling, he emerged from the cockpit and took a good look around.

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Several radio dishes dot the grounds of the Green Bank Observatory, including the 140-foot telescope seen here rising above the misty fields.

Between the rolling mountains and handful of farm homes, a cluster of large radio telescopes erupted from the landscape. He’d almost bulls-eyed one of them, a giant structure with a dish stretching 300 feet across; another smaller and less conspicuous dish had just been used to scan the cosmos for the first signs of intelligent alien life.

“I thought I was dreaming, or that I had died,” the pilot said to my dad, Frank Drake, who at the time was in charge of the telescopes strewn across the fields.

The pilot, an Air Force major who’d run into trouble during a routine flight, had inadvertently landed at a facility run by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. There, scientists were conducting some of the era’s most cutting-edge cosmic research in the heart of the federally designated National Radio Quiet Zone—a 13,000-square-mile region established in 1958.

Even today, radio and wifi are largely forbidden within the zone; restrictions are even tighter around the observatory. Vehicles servicing the facility’s collection of telescopes are part of a fleet of relics from the 1950s and 1960s or are trucks with diesel engines—spark plugs in today's gas engines create interference that clogs the data astronomers are hoping to net.

This is also why cell phones, cordless phones, and digital cameras are prohibited on-site, why the rare microwave ovens sit inside interference-blocking metal cages, and why people who live and work in Green Bank actually talk to each other in person.

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Green Bank today is a town of about 150 people, but this small group includes a diverse mix of scientists, long-time locals, and people seeking to live far from wifi and cell phones.

Photographers Paul Kranzler and Andrew Phelps spent weeks in 2015 documenting the place for a recently published book called The Drake Equation, named after a formula that calculates the number of detectable civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy (Dad had come up with it the year before that pilot showed up).

“Paul and I are both interested in photographing landscapes that shape the way people live,” Phelps says, likening the towering telescopes filling this Appalachian valley to giant mushrooms. “This valley was a great place to see how science has shaped the way the town develops—or doesn’t develop—and how the demographic of the area is so diverse, from astrophysicists to bear hunters to electro-hypersensitives.”

In Green Bank, time works in strange ways. A half-century ago, as West Virginians proudly displayed newfangled washing machines on their front porches, NRAO scientists were conducting Project Ozma, the first scientific search for smart aliens. Other teams were scrutinizing the planets, staring into the heart of our galaxy, and studying the nearest star.

Today, the observatory and the town of Green Bank, which currently boasts about 150 inhabitants, are just as remarkably mismatched.

The World's Largest Fully Steerable Telescope

Taller than the Statue of Liberty, and with a diameter equal to the length of three U.S. football fields, the Green Bank Telescope is sensitive enough to capture the faintest radio waves in the cosmos.

The science happening at what is now the Green Bank Observatory continues to be cutting-edge, with teams using the world’s largest steerable radio telescope to study far-flung galaxies, rapidly rotating dead stars, fundamental physics, and hints of aliens. But the town itself is still very much as it was decades ago. A little bigger, perhaps, and now with a Dollar General store and pizza delivery, but without the technologies that define and sometimes overwhelm modern-day living throughout much of the United States.

As a result, Green Bank is one of the few places where those suffering from a mysterious and controversial illness known as Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome find refuge. Reportedly, energies associated with wireless communications produce rashes, headaches, fatigue, and other ailments in sufferers. Even though science and medicine are far from convinced that wifi is to blame, a number of people have fled to Green Bank to alleviate their symptoms.

“We met a few people whose stories were very convincing, and we didn’t get the feeling they were living there by choice but by necessity. Others, as you heard their life story, you realized they have always been running from something,” Phelps says.

“We met wealthy individuals who had built themselves beautiful large houses, and we met families who were living in tiny mobile homes in the woods. We met architects, pilots, doctors, ex-military who have moved to the area, all claiming to finally live pain-free.”

Kranzler and Phelps documented all of this in their book. Through their images, the charismatic, time-warped reality of Green Bank begins to emerge—but as with all unfamiliar worlds, it’s a place that must really be experienced to be understood. As Phelps recalls, they began one epic day with a mock bear hunt, and ended it inside the dish of the Green Bank Telescope.

“Standing in the middle of the acre-size beautiful piece of scientific equipment,” he says, “and looking out over the woods, which just hours before saw us running with dogs, was almost too much to comprehend.”

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Snow settles over the rolling hills of the valley around Green Bank.