Hubble: The Telescope That Almost Never Flew
It's easy today to take the Hubble Space Telescope and its glorious views of galaxies and colorful nebulae for granted after 15 years of amazing astronomy and countless cosmic photographs.?
But just after World War II, when astronomy via a "spaceship" got its first concrete proposal, putting telescopes and cameras in space to look back in time sounded outlandish.
As astronauts prepare this week to fix and upgrade Hubble one last time, astronomers are reflecting on the nearly half a century it took to overcome both technological and political hurdles before Hubble would send its first pretty picture.
In the post-war era, when the idea of a space telescope got its first serious consideration, not a single spaceship had been launched, so there was no precedent for launching anything, heavy or light, much less a gargantuan telescope with a camera and setup for beaming images back to Earth.
The history of Hubble reveals it was a project that, for several reasons, almost never got off the ground.
Sputnik, when launched in 1957, weighed just 185 pounds. By contrast, astronomically powerful telescopes are quite heavy. The first 200-inch ground-based observatory ? the Hale Telescope on Palomar Mountain in California ? had yet to be completed back in the late 1940s. And the Hale ended up weighing about 1 million pounds. And that's at the lower end, size-wise, of what was being talked about for space.
Decades would pass.
Finally, thanks to astronomer Lyman Spitzer's vision for an orbiting space telescope and work advocating for it, along with the efforts of an army of engineers, politicians, astronauts and scientists, the first stunning pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope were returned to Earth in 1994.
The hurdles were enormous and nearly unending, but the Hubble had to happen, on some level, says science historian Bob Zimmerman.
"The drama of the story is how long it took, but never the less, it was inevitable," he told SPACE.com.
Here is Zimmerman's short review of the hold-ups:
"In the 50s, astronomers were reluctant because of the cost. In the 60s, they were reluctant because of the technological aspects. In the 70s, they were on board, but Congress was an issue and the money wasn't available. In the 80s, there were more technological issues. In the 90s, it was launched with an incorrectly shaped mirror. It took almost 50 years from Spitzer's first proposal before the telescope was sharp and clear and ready to take pictures."
A cast of thousands
Spitzer's initial idea, hatched in 1946, was actually feasible, Zimmerman said.
After wrapping up work related to World War II in Washington, D.C., Spitzer headed to Santa Monica, Calif., where he drafted a paper for a project, "Astronomical Advantages of an Extra-Terrestrial Observatory," for the newly formed RAND Project there.
His proposal for a 200- to 600-inch space telescope was based on technology that was available at the time (including the German V-2 rocket used against the Allies in WWII) or thought to be on the horizon in the coming decade, Zimmerman wrote in "The Universe in a Mirror: The Saga of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Visionaries Who Built It" (Princeton University Press, 2008).
No one bit for another 10-plus years, Zimmerman found, based on interviews he conducted with many key players over the years and his many hours spent in various library and museum archives.
Eventually, Spitzer's proposal for an optical? telescope in space came to the attention of Nancy Roman, NASA's first chief astronomer, and a working group of scientists who met to assess NASA's fast-growing science program in 1962. The group was unwilling, though, to accept Spitzer's proposal, because it was thought to be premature and faced serious technological hurdles, Zimmerman wrote.
Another working group and a few years later, there was strong support for what was then called the Large Space Telescope, with a 120-inch diameter mirror, Zimmerman wrote. It helped that Spitzer chaired the group, and that the Ranger, Mariner, Gemini and Apollo programs were then generating tons of space engineering. At that point, Roman became a heavy NASA advocate for what became the Hubble Space Telescope, especially moving into the 1970s.
"She made it possible to get early telescopes up [into space] to learn what needed to be learned," Zimmerman said. "As soon as that technology started to mature, she was pushing for the design work. Her hard-nosed nature helped get the telescope built, but worked against her politically, eventually hurting her career."
Another Hubble hero down the road was energetic astronomer Bob O'Dell, who eventually gave up a tenured position at the University of Chicago to be the project scientist for the Large Space Telescope project at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
Hubble's history in the 1970s involved a lot of political battles for control of the project and a fierce, drawn-out battle to obtain money for it from Congress. As a government employee with NASA, O'Dell was unable to directly lobby for Hubble, but he dedicated countless hours to organizing important astronomers to do that work, Zimmerman wrote.
O'Dell also did clean-up work on a number of others' political missteps with Congress. Those missteps included asking for too much money at first and mentioning a report that had given short shrift to the Large Space Telescope.
At one point in 1974, the House Appropriations Committee recommended zero funding for the telescope. Going against his boss's orders, Zimmerman wrote, O'Dell then organized a successful, extensive lobbying campaign by astronomers to undo that.
One of O'Dell's key soldiers, along with Spitzer, was astronomer John Bahcall at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. A person with endless enthusiasm, Bahcall became a lobbying voice for O'Dell, enduring some of the classic brush-offs and rude treatments that come with dealings with members of Congress.
Budget cuts in the mid-'70s forced O'Dell and other to reduce Hubble's aperture to 94 inches, which could fit inside the cargo bay of the space shuttle. The shuttle was in the works, but not yet flying.
In 1975, Noel Hinners, the new NASA administrator, played the ultimate political hardball, Zimmerman wrote. The political climate then was unenthusiastic about space and NASA, and politicians were under deep suspicion as a result of the Watergate scandal. So instead of accepting a small figure from Congress to get the telescope off the ground, he refused all money and deleted the entire telescope budget. This generated a firestorm of protests and lobbying in 1976 and 1977, with O'Dell still working behind the scenes and Bahcall in front of the scenes, leading the troops.
One dramatic highlight: Bahcall arrived five minutes late for breakfast prior to some key meetings with members of Congress during that time, Zimmerman wrote. The astronomer explained that had cut his thigh badly on a nail sticking out of his hotel mattress and spent half the previous night in an emergency room. Nonetheless, Bahcall hobbled up and down the long halls of Congress the rest of that day, in obvious pain, continuing to make the case for Hubble.
Another wild lobbying moment that year noted by Zimmerman: Bahcall met with a Congresswoman in the ladies lounge adjacent to the House floor so she could dash out for a key vote if necessary.
Success with funding
It worked. By the summer of 1977, a Congressional committee approved a budget for the space telescope. Other enormous challenges followed in building the telescope and then in addressing the well-known mirror problem that cursed the telescope's first pictures in 1990. But all these were surmounted and are another entire story.
However, the dedication and vision, especially of Spitzer, for whom the Spitzer Space Telescope was named as a tribute to his contributions to space-based astronomy, are recognized by many in the field of astronomy and beyond.
In retrospect, Bahcall told SPACE.com in 2004 (a year before he died) that he was "enormously proud" of the telescope's success. "It exhibits some of the best properties of Americans ? ingenuity, ability to overcome obstacles, which we faced when the telescope was first launched and had an imperfect prescription for the lenses. It reveals beautiful things to us about the way the universe is that we would have otherwise not imagined and that gives us a source of pride particularly on days when there are things in the newspapers that are not a source of price for the United States."
"The thing that stood out the most was the dedication, the unwavering commitment to push this, the willingness to make sacrifices to get it to happen," Zimmerman said. "Among the people who count are Spitzer, who had the commitment to push for the telescope for decades; Bob O'Dell, who made sacrifices in his career to make it happen; John Bahcall, who sacrificed years of research time to lobby for the telescope; and Nancy Roman, who antagonized a lot of scientists to push for this project."
Regarding the upcoming repair mission next week, Zimmerman is not counting his chickens before they hatch. "This is rocket science," he said. "Anything can happen. The American track record is superb at trying to do these impossible things, but they are impossible things. They take a little longer."
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