Behind every pretty picture of the universe there is a lot of dirty work that had to be done to capture it.
When I was covering the space program in the 1980s, at some point during every space mission a NASA public affairs officer would corral a few science reporters and ask what to do when the space telescope was finally launched.
The space agency wanted to make sure its long-awaited and astronomically expensive telescope — soon to be launched into orbit above the turbulent fog of the atmosphere — made an appropriately cosmic splash. The advice from those of us in the press peanut gallery was always the same and simple: pictures — cosmic postcards like the live pictures of other planets being transmitted from the Viking and Voyager spacecraft — early and often. Little did I know how mortified the astronomers were by these suggestions. Having spent a decade or more of their lives building the telescopes and their instruments, they were terrified that somebody, some outsider, would take a ruler to one of those pictures and scoop them on some discovery — something that had actually happened to one of the Voyager scientists.
“If you look at those objects before I do, I’ll kill you,” John N. Bahcall, an astrophysicist at the Institute for Advanced Study, once told Eric J. Chaisson, now at Tufts University, who was then in charge of public outreach and wanted to take some pretty pictures.
That tale was news to me. It is recounted in “The Universe in Mirror: The Saga of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Visionaries Who Built It” (Princeton University Press), a breezy behind-the-scenes account by Robert Zimmerman, a freelance writer and space historian.
We hear all the time about the great science Hubble is doing, orbiting high above the murky, turbulent atmosphere, and the astronomers using it to stalk dark energy or planets around other stars. This fall astronauts from the space shuttle Atlantis will be in the spotlight as they perform one last maintenance call on the telescope.
But there is a group less well known: people like C.R. O’Dell, known as Bob, who gave up his research career to manage the space telescope project at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.; Nancy G. Roman, who championed space astronomy to the agency and her colleagues; Lyman S. Spitzer Jr., the Princeton astronomer who thought up the telescope way back in 1946 and then was frozen out of using it; Frank J. Cepollina, the Goddard Space Flight Center engineer who designed Hubble’s servicing missions.
These people spent years trudging the corridors of Congress and NASA, fighting bureaucratic battles, defending budgets, hassling with contractors, making hard decisions that alienated their friends, devising fantastical fixes for fantastical problems, skirting the edge of the law and generally growing old without glory. Isaac Newton once said that if he saw farther than most people, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. If Hubble sees farther, it is because of these men and women, who come to life, warts and all, in Mr. Zimmerman’s book, and of the process, messy and uncomfortable as it may be, by which dreams are turned into legacies in a democratic society.
It should be noted that Mr. Zimmerman himself is standing on the shoulders of giants, notably “The Space Telescope: A Study of NASA, Science, Technology, and Politics,” by the historian Robert W. Smith (Cambridge University Press, 1993). Drawing on Dr. Smith’s files and other archives, as well as personal interviews, Mr. Zimmerman has brought the story up to the present, and it’s a great story.
The Hubble has been called the most productive telescope in history and has hypnotized us all with its cosmic postcards, but it’s a wonder it was ever built. Many astronomers feared that its enormous cost would drain resources from ground-based astronomy and may not work anyway. NASA was preoccupied with building the space shuttle and was on a short financial leash in the inflation-ridden post-Apollo era.
Astronomers did not trust the scientific expertise at Goddard, which got the job of developing instruments for the telescope, and they were wary of the bureaucracy at the Marshall center, better known for developing rocket engines than science. But Marshall needed work and so got the job of managing the telescope development, its scientific credentials burnished when Dr. O’Dell agreed to leave his dream job at the University of Chicago to move to Huntsville and run the project.
Congress deleted the telescope from NASA’s budget in 1974, almost killing it. The NASA administrator Noel W. Hinners, in a calculated move, eliminated the telescope from its 1976 budget, but the news was leaked (illegally) to astronomers ahead of time and they were able to have an intense lobbying campaign in place. The telescope moved ahead, shrunken to two-thirds its original size and hobbled by an arbitrary decree by Dr. Hinners’ predecessor, James C. Fletcher, in 1972 that it not cost more than $300 million.
Dr. Spitzer suffered a double loss. Hoping to build the camera for the telescope, he bet on the wrong technology and lost out to a pair of California Institute of Technology gadgeteers, James A. Westphal and James Gunn, who is now at Princeton. Then Princeton lost to Johns Hopkins in its bid to host the telescope operations center.
All this, of course, was just prelude to the sickening discovery, after its launching in 1990, that the telescope’s mirror was misshapen, with a spherical aberration — an amateur’s mistake that Mr. Zimmerman attributes to a make-no-waves look-the-other-way attitude formed by the need to stay under Mr. Fletcher’s original budget ceiling. His description of how the mirror was bungled and the agonizing days when astronomers struggled to understand what was wrong and how to fix it takes up a quarter of the book and is worth the price of admission by itself.
Along the way there are nice human touches. After Dr. O’Dell stepped down as project scientist, his colleagues chipped in telescope observing time to give him a full share of Hubble time. He turned around and gave half of it to Dr. Spitzer, allowing the father of the telescope to harvest some of its fruits.
Hubble was restored to its full glorious potential by the original astronaut servicing crew in 1993, and was hitting its stride when NASA was hammered by the loss of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003. The agency’s administrator, Sean O’Keefe, an admitted bean counter confronted with death and issues of serious rocket science, canceled the final servicing mission on the grounds that it was too risky. That ignited a national outcry and a whole new round of lobbying reminiscent of the old days in the ’70s.
Eventually Michael Griffin, Mr. O’Keefe’s successor, reversed that call. The saga continues this fall. Like I said, it’s a great story.