Hubble Still Hailed as Greatest Scientific Instrument After 25 Years

Hubble as seen from Discovery during its second servicing mission (PHOTO CREDIT: NASA)
Hubble as seen from Discovery during its second servicing mission (PHOTO CREDIT: NASA)

It’s likely that no other modern-day scientific instrument has stirred as many passions as the Hubble Space Telescope, which marks the 25th anniversary of its launch into orbit on April 24. It brought us bitter disappointment one minute and thrills the next. It has provoked sorrow and wonder, devotion and outrage. At one point, it was a national disgrace. Now it’s a national treasure, with the kind of name recognition usually enjoyed only by pop stars and presidents.

If Hubble’s story were a movie, it would be pure melodrama, from the humiliating news of its defective vision to the triumphant repair by spacewalking astronauts. Its peerless abilities provoke pride in American ingenuity, its snapshots an almost spiritual awe.

From its vantage point roughly 350 miles above Earth, Hubble has become “the most fertile scientific instrument there ever was,” says astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium. It has given the world an art gallery’s worth of beautiful images of nebulae, distant galaxies and nearby planets. Before Hubble, few of us had any notion of how the cosmos looked. Now we all know: pinwheels of stars, gauzy pillars of gas and dust, bright galaxies scattered across a dark backdrop.

“Hubble turned the galaxy into our backyard,” says Tyson, who hosted a recent remake of the iconic TV show Cosmos and was inspired by original Cosmos host Carl Sagan.

We might still be in the dark if the anti-Hubble forces had gotten their way. During the mid-1970s, many members of Congress saw no need for yet another large telescope. Even some scientists regarded the project as extravagant, grandiose or both — “Buck Rogers stuff,” says former skeptic Ivan King, an emeritus astronomer at the University of Washington.

But the telescope had a champion in Princeton astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer, often called the father of the Hubble. Spitzer proposed a space telescope back in 1946, helped design it and wooed lawmakers and suspicious astronomers. Congress finally approved funding for the telescope in 1977 after a three-year battle.

Despite all Spitzer and others could do, their telescope remained star-crossed. To build it, NASA burned through $1.5 billion in 1990 dollars, twice as much as originally estimated. Engineers, worried that the telescope project would be canceled, hesitated to ask for extra money for more tests, says the University of Alberta’s Robert Smith, author of The Space Telescope and other books about Hubble. The telescope was originally scheduled to ride the space shuttle to orbit in 1983, but didn’t make it off the launch pad until April 24, 1990.

That was the beginning of the real troubles for Hubble, named after famed 20th-century astronomer Edwin Hubble. By late June of 1990, the telescope’s managers had realized to their horror that their vaunted telescope was half-blind. The shape of Hubble’s main mirror, which collects and helps focus the light entering the telescope, deviated from design by as much as one-fiftieth of the width of a human hair — still enough to blur the telescope’s vision. Investigators later found that NASA contractors had accepted a faulty test showing the mirror was perfect and discounted other tests pointing to flaws.

Two months after launch, NASA had to announce that its prize telescope had defective eyesight. Overnight, the instrument hyped as being able to reveal the secrets of space and time became an international laughingstock. “NASA’s $1.5 Billion Blunder,” Newsweek sneered, while David Letterman joked that NASA’s excuses included “Ran out of quarters.”

Devastated scientists and engineers couldn’t smile. “It was hard to tell people who you worked for,” recalls David Leckrone, a telescope team member from 1976 until his 2009 retirement. Many Hubble staffers left, he says, and some “badmouthed” NASA long afterward.

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SOURCE: USA Today, Traci Watson