Gov. Brian Schweitzer was in a sunny mood when he came to Bozeman to help Montana State University make a pitch Thursday to become the new home of the National Solar Observatory.

MSU is competing against six other universities across the nation for the honor and prestige of hosting the nation's solar research center.

"I think I might be one of the only governors in America who's a scientist," Schweitzer said, adding that he planned to tell the visiting selection team that Montana is serious about science, engineering and higher education.

"We're so serious about science," the governor added -- reaching into his pocket for props -- that the state has a "Montana is for Engineers" bumper sticker and trading cards about science for school children.

The National Solar Observatory headquarters is now split, located in Arizona and New Mexico. The National Science Foundation plans to bring the solar scientists together in one place. It also wants them to be part of a university, the better to educate the next generation of solar scientists.

NSF plans to build a $300 million advanced technology solar telescope in Maui, Hawaii, and have scientists on the mainland operate it remotely.

MSU President Waded Cruzado also spent time with the seven visiting selection team members and hosted a reception for them.

"We are very hopeful Montana State University will compete very favorably for this opportunity to attract a national laboratory," Cruzado said. "It will certainly enhance the visibility of MSU. It is a great feather in our cap, for the entire state."

Even more excited about the prospect of landing the solar observatory headquarters was Loren Acton, 75, MSU's only astronaut.

"Oh, man, that would be awesome," Acton said. The son of a Montana cattle rancher, he graduated from Montana State College in physics, did solar experiments aboard the shuttle Challenger years ago and in 1993 founded MSU's solar research group.

Montana has a good chance to win, Acton said. It's a special place, with a great quality of life, and attracts scientific talent that's "the best in the world," he said. Both the state and university "are solidly behind it. I think we're the ones to beat."

MSU is competing, he said, against the University of Arizona-Tucson, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Alabama-Huntsville, New Mexico State University-Las Cruces, one consortium made up of Stanford University, the University of California-Berkeley and Ames Research Center, and another consisting of UCLA and the Jet Propulsion Lab.

Dick Smith, MSU's physics department head, said bringing the solar headquarters here with its 25 research scientists would enhance education for MSU's undergraduates, and probably double the number of graduate students the department could train.

Dana Longcope, physics professor, said MSU turned out five Ph.D.s in solar physics last year, out of probably eight for the entire country. Longcope noted a former MSU grad student and two colleagues just had a discovery published this month in Nature explaining the two-year disappearance of sun spots.

"We're the odds-on favorite," Longcope said, to win the National Solar Observatory.

The Montana Board of Regents approved MSU's proposal last November to spend up to $15 million to build offices and laboratories if it wins the solar competition. The construction bonds would be paid off with the observatory's lease payments.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.