The Hubble Space Telescope is known for its beautiful images of our universe and the knowledge gained from them. It is an accomplishment of many people. The Hubble Space Telescope is known around the world and, if any technological device can be loved, this is the one. For 20 years it has revealed and bestowed upon the hearts and minds of human beings incredible cosmic beauty.
Hubble’s human impact
In this writer’s heart and mind, HST represents an even larger gift — the honor of knowing several of the people responsible for its existence and the privilege of being an eyewitness to history. With a plethora of articles on Hubble, I dedicate this article to the scientists and engineers with the Princeton University connection.
Dr. Lyman Spitzer’s vision and mission
In 1976 I began my first professional job fresh from college graduation. It was my task to work on the OAO-3c satellite project at Princeton University. The mind behind this major satellite was also Chairman of the Astrophysics Department, Dr. Lyman Spitzer, Jr. He was an enthusiastic admirer of 17th century Galileo Galilei who in the early years of telescopes built several, which led his eyes from earthly observations to the night sky.
Galilei had not expected the wonders he would find, such as a mountainous Moon, incredible numbers of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, Venus’ phases, and Jupiter’s four moons. He published his revolutionary findings and thus changed astronomy forever. Spitzer initiated the next revolution, “…the space telescope will be the greatest improvement in optical astronomy since Galileo invented (sic) the telescope.”
The major difference is that a single man could no longer build such an advanced technological instrument. It required support from fellow scientists, Congressional funding, and scores of engineers all coordinated to not only design and build but also launch the satellite into space. The apparatus was designated the Large Space Telescope and took decades of work by Spitzer.
Spitzer had experience with satellite development in the mid-1940s from his work with the U.S. Air Force in the possible uses and benefits of orbiting satellites. His report to the Air Force in 1946 discussed the astronomical uses of satellites. Different satellites could observe specific spectral ranges. It was that report which launched his forty years of satellite promotion.
Despite the postwar acquisition and success of the German rockets and scientists, the U.S. did not pursue a major space exploration program. Spitzer moved to Princeton to head up the university’s observatory. There were no national level space activities or agency so his efforts focused on small scale research. Telescopes used large gas-filled balloons to reach heights of 80,000 feet where they could photograph the Sun, planets, and star systems.
A series of these successful research projects were conducted in the mid to late 1950s under the guidance of Dr. Martin Schwarzschild using funding from the U.S. Navy and National Science Foundation. The completion of the balloon telescope project was the necessary base for Spitzer’s planned proposal for an orbital satellite. However, history intervened with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I in 1957. The Air Force urged Spitzer to become involved with their satellite project so he continued Princeton’s projects simultaneously. In 1958 the U.S responded to the Soviet Sputnik by replacing the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics with a new agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Orbiting astronomical observatory satellite series
The U.S. began launching satellites for earth science and communications in 1958 but the first NASA astronomical satellite project was the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory (OAO) series. Out of four, two were successful with OAO-3c the most renowned and long-lived. It was named Copernicus after the Polish astronomer born 500 years before the satellite’s launch. Following OAO-2’s success in 1968 the way was open for Spitzer to chair a committee to define the objectives of a large space telescope. It had taken seven years for the National Academy of Sciences’ recommendations to come to fruition but now the real work began. The Large Space Telescope (LST) was the device proposed in the committee’s 1969 report as a permanent space observatory.
Politics of a large space telescope
NASA approved the project and 1971 began the feasibility studies and Spitzer’s lobbying work. However, support and funding were not automatic. In fact, there was resistance within the scientific community. It is hard for us to imagine that the satellite we now know as the amazing Hubble Space Telescope would encounter any disinterest or human obstacles. In one list of recommended astronomy projects LST was ninth with only the first four receiving priority. This list proved to be too influential in Congress such that when LST was presented to the House subcommittee for funding, it was ultimately refused. Spitzer’s lobbying team had to counter the apathy of other scientists, which they did successfully.
Congress finally authorized funding in 1977. By then LST was named Hubble after 20th century American astronomer, Edwin Hubble who had studied galaxies and determined that the universe is expanding. Humans would also be part of the mission with parts designed to be periodically replaced, thus increasing the lifetime of the satellite. The space shuttle was not even in existence yet but it became integral to the success of the proposed space telescope.
Copernicus satellite as Hubble’s precursor
When I came on board in 1976 the Copernicus satellite had been working in space for four years. During my years at Princeton University in the Astrophysics Department, I worked amongst the elite in the realm of astrophysicists. Peyton Hall was not a big building and my job required interacting with our own as well as those visiting from other countries. It was initially my task to assist scientists with the collection of the data produced by their Copernicus experiments. Eventually, I had the task of training the department’s personnel in using our computer. Dr. Martin Schwarzschild who had supervised the balloon telescope project and son of another major astrophysicist, was totally mystified by computers but he had a wonderful sense of humor and outrageous laugh. Spitzer was always kind and led graduate students in climbing buildings on campus at night, despite security rules.
Unsung engineers and technicians of Hubble
Many of the engineers and technicians in our department worked on designing one of the image collection systems – charge-coupled device (CCD). It would be connected to an image sensor, receive electrical charge, and move it where the charge could be converted into useful information such as converting it into a digital value. They are common in digital imaging but at the time, it was advanced technology.
Unfortunately, it did not make it into HST’s final design. Another group across the country won the contract with a pre-existing and well known technology. I used to talk with the guys in their lab and they enjoyed sharing their work with me. Although their years of effort did not become part of Hubble, they are still a part of its illustrious history.
Dr. Ed Weiler – satellite and space science pioneer
The Copernicus satellite project was the first job for Dr. Ed Weiler after he earned his doctorate. He joined Princeton in 1976 and was based at NASA-Goddard as the director of science operations. He worked mostly at Goddard with the other part of our team, which was responsible for downlinking data from the satellite. That team then sent the data to our department’s computer, which I needed for my quarterly NASA reports and Principal Investigator data collection.
Later, Weiler served as the Chief Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope from 1979 until 1998. He was the prime scientific spokesperson Hubble Space Telescope Chief Scientist appearing on numerous television shows. He also was the key speaker at NASA-JSC during the 10th anniversary of Hubble. His work has led to successes such as the Mars Exploration Rover missions. Weiler was named Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA-Headquarters in 2008. He is the face of space science exploration and has received awards for his expertise and accomplishments over the years.
Astronauts rescue and repair the Hubble Space Telescope
Hubble launched in 1990 with great excitement and anticpation. After its first tests in orbit, major problems were found with its optical system. It turned out to be an unbelievable manufacturing error. It was a shocking disappointment but creative minds set to work on fixing the myopic vision of the telescope. Astronaut Story Musgrave was on the first HST servicing and repair mission, which restored the telescope to its full capabilities. Musgrave performed three of the five spacewalks that were done in teams of two. Since then it has thrived due to the successful completion of complex repair missions.
Musgrave had many accomplishments in space and college degrees in a wide array of subjects. His life is always filled with an amazing array of activities. He performs multimedia presentations on topics such as leadership, motivation, creativity, design, aesthetics, and more. He and I attended several philosophy classes together at the University of Houston – Clear Lake, which is located right next to NASA-JSC. We shared the bond of exploration. He spoke at one of my club’s meetings. He used the image of a child studying a seashell on a beach: “We are explorers forever moving outwards, or we die inwards.”
Technological advance in any field requires the vision, persistence, leadership, and expertise of many people. Only a handful of people of been mentioned in relationship to the awe-inspiring Hubble Space Telescope. It was designed as a tool for the study of astronomy but it revealed the unimaginable beauty of the universe to every earthbound human being. Its power inspired people to protect it when its life was endangered by funding and safety concerns. For over 20 years the hearts and minds of many people have lived in the center of the Hubble Space Telescope.