An experiment to unlock the mysteries of the universe's creation was nearly derailed this week by a wayward Minnesota truck driver.
The trucker was hauling a high-tech telescope, designed to detect radiation from the Big Bang, to a NASA facility in Palestine, Texas, when he disappeared over the weekend. Calls to the trucker went unanswered. The trucking company's owners and the 15-person University of Minnesota team that had spent eight years building the telescope began to panic.
A frantic search ensued, led by a trucking company employee who drove to Texas to look for the telescope after local police offered no assistance. The employee, Charlie Hoag, found the trailer hauling the telescope at a Dallas truck wash on Wednesday night.
His discovery led University of Minnesota physics professor Shaul Hanany, the project's lead researcher, to hail Hoag and another trucker who accompanied him as heroes.
"If Charlie would not have found that particular trailer at that time, maybe half a day or a day later someone would have stolen it and taken it for metal or just for scrap," Hanany said.
That, he said, "would have been devastating."
Fridley-based Copeland Trucking has declined to release the name of the missing trucker. The man offered no explanation of what happened and has since been fired, said company co-owner Tim Hoag.
The trucker was found when Tim Hoag sent his son, Charlie, and another company trucker down to Dallas, Texas on Tuesday after the driver did not show up at a NASA facility Monday morning. Hoag said he first called local police and the Texas State Patrol, but they declined to investigate.
Hoag's son, Charlie Hoag, found the truck, with the driver sleeping inside, at a truck stop on Tuesday, Hoag said. The truck's rims were missing, and company credit card records indicated the driver had charged $1000 worth of fuel at the same truck stop over the weekend, Hoag said.
Unfortunately, the telescope was nowhere to be found. Hoag said his son pleaded with the police to arrest the driver, but the police declined.
Hoag said the driver's refusal to talk left the company with more questions than answers.
"We can't do anything with the driver," Hoag said. "We can't make him talk, right? No matter how mad we are, you know, we can't like break a knee cap or water board the guy. We would've liked to."
The driver led them to a nearby Days Inn, where he told them he left the trailer with the telescope the day before, but the trailer was not there, Hoag said. At that point, Hoag said, the driver stopped talking and has not been seen since.
After another night of searching, Hoag's son finally located the trailer at a nearby truck wash, Hoag said. NASA scientists who inspected the telescope Thursday morning said it did not appear to be damaged, said Danny Ball, site manager for the NASA-run Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas, where the telescope was originally scheduled to be delivered.
"It appeared when we opened up the trailer that everything was exactly as it was when it left Minnesota," Ball said. "It appears as though it just took a detour on its way down here."
However, on closer inspection, researchers found two bicycles and three ladders missing from the trailer, said University of Minnesota research assistant Asad Aboobaker, who helped unpack the cargo at the NASA facility today. "Clearly someone opened a box and thought they didn't find anything else of value," he said.
Ball praised the trucking company for its efforts. "We're really glad it all turned out this way," he said. "We were very concerned yesterday afternoon that we might not ever see it again. Fortunately, the trucking company who shipped it was very responsive in terms of locating it."
Hoag said the driver had worked for the Fridley-based company for more than a year and had no history of disciplinary problems. Needless to say, he said, the employee, whom Hoag declined to name, has been fired.
Hoag said cargo thefts are bad enough, but losing an expensive telescope is likely the worst incident in the company's 27-year history. The company runs two facilities, one in Fridley and one in Iowa, and usually transports less interesting items.
"Why didn't he decide to do this on a load of potato chips?" Hoag said.
Capt. Steve Perry, of the Hutchins Police Department, confirmed that the company found the missing truck and driver on Monday. The local police did not investigate the missing telescope or arrest the driver, he said, because the telescope was found in Dallas, not Hutchins. The Dallas Police Department did not return a call seeking comment.
The telescope will be shipped to Antarctica , where it will be attached to a giant balloon in December and sent 110,000 feet into the sky to look for evidence of radiation from the Big Bang.
Hanany said he hopes the telescope will gather evidence of how the universe began.