Leaving the living quarters, we head toward the observatory. I'm breathing hard from the bite of the altitude as we ascend steel stairs to the catwalk that overlooks the tubular frame of one of the four telescopes in the array. The main mirror is seven inches thick and nearly 27 feet (8 meters) across, ground and polished to exacting standards. Sensors and pumps beneath it make corrections every 30 seconds, pushing and pulling the mirror like the springs of an orthopedic mattress. "We can shift its shape all the time, constantly looking for the best configuration," explains Esteban Illanes, an observatory spokesman.
In the control room astronomers plug coded rows of numbers into terminals. The figures govern the actions of the telescopes, which can be positioned to observe any particular niche in the night sky. The VLT array digitally combines light entering all four of its telescopes into a single rendering to produce the highest resolution images of any observatory in the world. A British astronomer, Rachel Johnson, shows us dim but tantalizing images of an incomprehensibly remote region of stars, part of an Italian colleague's effort to determine a star's birth date by noting its color and brightness.
That night we drive off the mountain in utter darkness: Headlights are forbidden until we reach the main highway. Plummeting down to the coast, then north toward the city of Antofagasta, we take a wrong turn and fly over a two-foot-tall (0.6 meters) mound of dirt, landing in a shivering heap. After straightening out the radiator and changing a tire, we limp into the city.
Antofagasta, on the edge of the desert's vast expanse, is one of Chile's fastest growing cities. It's the center of the Chilean copper industry, and the world's largest copper port. An island between sea and desert, it's kept alive by caravans of dusty trucks, pricey water pipelines, and a railroad linked to the mines. The city has flexed from 183,000 people 20 years ago to a whopping 300,000 today.
"It was like a gold rush when mining jobs opened up in the late 1980s," says Luis Piñones Molina, the editor of Estrella del Norte (Star of the North), the local tabloid newspaper. "A mining driver could make $2,000 a month compared with jobs that might bring in $200 down south."
Inside the huge new shopping mall you can see Antofagasta's newly minted middle class pushing fancy new baby carriages, eating ice cream cones, checking out the newest computer gadgets, ordering Big Macs, and overextending new credit cards. "But the area doesn't particularly resonate with these people," says Piñones. "They don't put their money or their emotion into Antofagasta. They do their jobs here, then go home for the weekends."
Chile's copper wealth lies along the tectonic fault that lifted up the Andes. The ore is scraped from immense open-pit mines that sometimes sully the desert's aquifers. But there are few organized protests. "The Río Loa, the most important river in the north, was contaminated by the Chuquicamata copper mine," says Patricio Fischer. "But the prime industrial base of the nation will not bend over for a few villages on a contaminated river."
At the port of Antofagasta, cathodes of corrugated copper plate are stacked like giant lasagna on wooden pallets. As a copper port, though, Antofagasta's days are numbered: In the next four years the government will shift much of Chile's copper shipments to a new deepwater port in Mejillones, 40 miles (64 kilometers) north, and leave Antofagasta as the administrative and commercial center of the region. Planners will transform the threadbare portion of the present port into an ambitious waterfront development on the order of those in Sydney or Barcelona.
Alvaro Fernández Slater, chief of the port, is a calm young man dressed in an earth-tone suit and tie. He hopes that the makeover will be a turning point, a coming-of-age for the city of Antofagasta and, by extension, the entire Atacama. "There's no real alternative for copper," he says. "We need to build our future now, while we have the money, improving the quality of life so people will make roots and stay. A lot of us came for one or two years and planned to go back to Santiago. But now I have a house, my children go to school here—they've become Antofagastans."
The state-owned Codelco-Chile company produces a third of the nation's copper. To visit the company's Chuquicamata open-pit mine—the largest in the world—we push inland toward Calama, its staging and depot center. Calama is full of greenery and smells of money, but half the mine workers live in Chuquicamata, or "Chuqui," the company town tucked into a slope near a thousand-foot-tall (304.8 meters), three-mile-long (5 kilometers) bluff of ore tailings. The expanse of the mine is beginning to overwhelm the town; discarded tailings are slowly burying the now abandoned Roy H. Glover Hospital, once one of the finest in South America.
In a radical move, Codelco-Chile is relocating the entire town—3,500 workers plus their families—to new housing projects in Calama. Miners living near the processing plants have experienced severe health problems. But the official reason for the move is Codelco-Chile's desire to secure certification from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). According to the ISO, conditions at the mine are safe for working, but laborers and their families live too close to the mine's production areas.
To find out how miners are faring, we drive from Calama to the union headquarters in Chuqui. The union president, Mirta Moreno Moreno, sits behind an overstacked desk, wearing a brown suit, looking tired. Foreigners have seldom benefited her or her workers, so at first she fends off our questions with banalities. "There's arsenic and many other chemicals in the air," she says. "Every breath here can be hazardous. We have to be constantly monitoring the work conditions."
"But I've heard that the wages are the highest in Chile," I tell her.
She stiffens up, eyes flashing: "They may pay us with cash, but we pay with our lives. Practically none of our retirees have reached retirement age. They all leave after an accident or because of poor health. They don't get old; they go home to die. My father worked all his life here. He was only 54 and suffering from pulmonary silicosis. After watching him die, I decided to focus my energies where my heart took me—the health issues of workers."
Before leaving, we tour the mine and processing plants. From the rim of the pit it's hard to fathom distance: The copper mine is a series of terraces three miles (5 kilometers) across and a mile (1.6 kilometers) deep. But my eyes insist otherwise until I see the speck of a 50-foot-tall (15.2 meters) dump truck—looking like a lost roach—crawl across one of the levels, hauling 360 tons (327 metric tons)of ore to the edge of the pit.
The road from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama, the tourist center of northern Chile, slants through the desert haze, with snowcapped volcanoes floating behind the lower hills like stage drapery. Here are the rock-strewn badlands where Nomad, a semi-autonomous rover vehicle designed by U.S. scientists for Mars, trained in 1997 for its upcoming mission. And just last spring scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Tennessee, Chile, and NASA visited the Salar Grande—a region of the Atacama with a startling resemblance to the red planet—to begin developing a robot that will search for signs of life elsewhere in our solar system.