NO SIGNAL: Growing Up in Green Bank, West Virginia

Green Bank Telescope (foreground) and 140 Foot Telescope. (GBO/AUI/NSF)

I tend to speak about my origins as if I was from a foreign country, and not from rural West Virginia.

ARTICLE BY: Marilyn Creager
(Reposted with permission, original story from The Observer)

I tend to speak about my origins as if I was from a foreign country, and not from rural West Virginia. I grew up in Green Bank, West Virginia, at the center of the federally mandated National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ), where interference like cell phones, wireless internet, and other devices are legally regulated. My hometown feels like another planet, full of opposites and tucked away from the world in a quiet spot. I grew up feeling no different than the average child, but it wasn’t until middle school that I realized I lived in a unique area.

Green Bank is a special town—the epicenter of the NRQZ, and also a site of fascinating technology used for astronomical research. Green Bank is home to what was, during my childhood, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and is now the Green Bank Observatory (GBO). At GBO, there are eight telescopes, but the most impressive telescope is the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, or the GBT.

The GBT is currently the largest, fully-steerable radio telescope in the world. With a dish that is larger than a football field, this telescope can capture minuscule signals from space and help map out the objects in the universe.

According to GBO, NRAO was created in 1956, and that same year, the Associated Universities Incorporated purchased 6,000 acres in Green Bank. Soon after, the NRQZ was discussed as a way to help curb interference for both NRAO and the U.S. Naval facilities in Sugar Grove, West Virginia. The NRQZ was established in 1958 by the Federal Communications Commission, and to this day, spans 13,000 square miles, encompassing land in both West Virginia and Virginia.

In time, NRAO began to grow its facilities, adding telescope after telescope, and in 1989, Senator Robert Byrd sponsored an appropriation for the GBT. Construction began on the telescope in 1991, and it was dedicated in 2000, when I was two years old. The telescope began operating in 2003.

Reber Telescope and Green Bank Science Center – photo taken prior to 2016. (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

Familiar Pace

Green Bank was the best place to be a child. I grew up without the fear my parents might have had if we lived in the city. When I was old enough, my mother sent me out into the yard to find a neighbor kid to play with until dark. When the sun started to set, she would yell out the front door for me to come back home for dinner.

I was lucky to have young neighbors around, as the number of children in Green Bank have dwindled as I’ve gotten older. I had neighbors around my age, and we filled many days with made-up games of pretend, games with imaginary friends on my neighbor’s trampoline, and swimming in my neighbor’s pool set up on their back porch. I have many memories of pools filled from the hose and friction burn on my knees from the trampoline. And my neighbors all loved the patch of trees in my backyard—we’d spend all day building forts from fallen logs and branches.

Growing up like this made me fairly independent. I did well in school, I was driven, and I was also able to scrap it out with my friends. When things went wrong, we took care of it, unless it was something we needed our parents for (like road rash, or some gravel in our knees).

All through childhood, I didn’t feel any different than the average kid because of where I lived. Up until I was in middle school, technology in Green Bank seemed to be progressing at the same pace as the outside world. My brother and I were on Myspace just like everyone else, and when Facebook came out, we all joined in. I used my first computer mouse when I was two years old, the same year the telescope was dedicated, and I felt no different than anyone else. At the time, the only missing things were flip phones and radio stations. However, when I moved on to middle school, I began to feel that the world was progressing past what we were able to have in Green Bank.

40 Foot educational telescope (foreground) and 140 Foot telescope. (GBO/AUI/NSF)
40 Foot educational telescope (foreground) and 140 Foot telescope. (GBO/AUI/NSF)

Do Not Disturb

I began middle school in 2010, when touch-screen devices were coming into fashion. I got my first iPod Touch in the 7th grade, and everyone else around me got their devices, too. However, the only thing we could do with them were play games, explore apps, and listen to music—as we were not allowed to have Wi-Fi because of the NRQZ. Because I didn’t live on the site of NRAO, however, I didn’t have quite as many restrictions.

In Green Bank, if someone lives on the GBO site itself, things like cell phones, cordless phones, Wi-Fi, microwaves, and wireless speakers are prohibited. According to the GBO, the West Virginia Radio Astronomy Zoning Act allows them to “prohibit the use of any electrical equipment within a ten-mile radius that causes interference to radio astronomical observations.” Many of the items that many people rely on outside of Green Bank are prohibited.

My location meant that these restrictions weren’t as stringent, so my family was able to use items like wireless phones and microwaves. However, I do have memories of my mother using a phone in our kitchen with a long, stretched-out cord all throughout my childhood.

I bought my first cell phone when I went to Shepherd University at 18. It wasn’t difficult for me to discover Shepherd, as Green Bank has wired internet. Because my father is a software engineer at GBO, there was no way I was going to make it through my life without being technologically literate. However, the switch from tiny Green Bank to Shepherdstown made a huge difference in my life. Suddenly, life was flying at a much faster pace, and it was overwhelming.

I loved my freshman year of college. The biggest drawback was that I discovered, with a cell phone, I was connected to everyone 100 percent of the time. My first year at college, phone notifications drove me absolutely crazy. I had to put my phone on “Do Not Disturb” all day, as I couldn’t stand the buzz or the noise that came from every notification.

I noticed quickly that my friends were annoyed that they couldn’t reach me immediately, and that I didn’t follow the rules of texting that many of them had grown up with. I didn’t particularly know how to text well, and I definitely didn’t answer my texts or calls quickly. I was used to living in an area where I simply wasn’t available 24/7, and that if I left the house, no one could get in contact with me unless I wanted them too. I was suddenly tethered by my phone to a virtual world, and I didn’t enjoy it.

image of bicyclists at the Green Bank Observatory
Cyclists enjoy the miles of roads and trails at the Green Bank Observatory. (GBO/AUI/NSF)

Pulled Back

When I visited home, it was like a breath of fresh air. I would talk to people when I ran into them, but I didn’t necessarily have to seek them out or maintain contact with them regularly if I didn’t want to. Instead, we spoke when we saw each other, or we called each other at home, and there was no real pressure to stay in constant contact. That was enough for me.

Green Bank is one of my favorite places in the world. I don’t resent having more of an isolated childhood; instead, I think it strengthened me for the challenges I have faced so far in my life.

As I near graduation from college, I feel myself being pulled back towards Green Bank for a bit of rest. Shepherdstown is a beautiful place to learn, grow, and feel connected to the rest of the world. I love to people-watch on the street in Shepherdstown (which is impossible in Green Bank), and I love the community that the university creates in the town. However, for now, I want nothing more than to put my phone on airplane mode, disconnect from the outside world, and focus in on the bird song and the buzz of scientific advancement in the air at Green Bank. My home.