HUBBLE – 25 YEARS AND THE ASTRONOMY CONTINUESMay 19, 2015 | in News
Author: Keith Mordoff —
Twenty five years in space. Remarkable. The Hubble Space Telescope continues to defy all odds and has easily exceeded the pre-launch hype of being “the greatest advance in astronomy since Galileo.” Although Hubble’s greatness and accomplishments are undeniable today, it didn’t start out that way.
Back in 1990 I was standing in the Cape’s press area watching Space Shuttle Discovery rocket off the launch pad; the Shuttle’s commander was a Marine Corps pilot named Charles Bolden, now NASA’s administrator. The sensation was as much physical as visual, with hard bass notes hitting your internal organs as you watched the massive vehicle pushing into the atmosphere. Our hopes for the telescope were riding high with every minute of the shuttle’s growing down range trajectory.
I was representing Lockheed as their chief spokesperson for the program. We had helped NASA develop an inclusive inch-thick binder full of every detail to explain the wonders of Hubble and how its sensitive instruments, spacecraft systems and massive mirror would unlock the universe for all humankind. We were all shattered and our expectations crushed when the telescope’s first images were clearly fuzzy. I was suddenly experiencing a crash course in crisis communications. I explained over and over that the mirror had been ground perfectly to the wrong prescription. We all learned the meaning of new terms such as “spherical aberration.” It was a catastrophic result from more than a decade of work.
This great engineering marvel became an object lesson in how even the brightest engineers were capable of making mistakes. Other lessons were learned from the decision to forego conducting end-to-end tests before launch to save money.
But maybe the greatest achievement of all, was watching over the next few years as engineers from government and industry hatched the plan to fix the telescope and help it reach its ultimate greatness. And even with a flawed mirror, meaningful observations were conducted using advanced image processing techniques.
Three years later when a shuttle returned to orbit, it carried a device named COSTAR (corrective optics space telescope axial replacement) and a new Wide Field and Planetary Camera. After the astronauts captured the telescope and completed multiple spacewalks to install the new equipment, Hubble was redeployed to a higher orbit. When the mirror again looked to the stars, Hubble’s full potential was clearly realized.
If the telescope hadn’t been designed from the beginning to be serviced in space, its overall contribution to science and discovery would have been very limited. Twenty five years later, its gifts of discovery ranging from the age of the universe and prevalence of black holes are balanced with the many new questions it has raised. We also shouldn’t overlook the basic “wow” factor its images created with the general public. It has made space cool and images such as the famous Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula force us to ponder our very existence in the universe or at least consider our own small planet in a different light.
What originally drew me to love and appreciate science and engineering in the first place still does. This industry accomplishes great things. We do what seems impossible. We draw inspiration from tough problems and challenges and work tirelessly to cultivate new technologies and techniques to find answers.
Hubble will always represent to me the common struggles and often ultimate triumphs that reward hard work and dedication. After 25 years, 1.2 million observations, and a Nobel Prize, Hubble still surprises us. With all of these accomplishments made while orbiting the Earth at 17,000 mph, the telescope’s greatest discoveries may still lie ahead. The Hubble Space Telescope was, and still is, a gift to the world.