Bloggers note: Admittedly, there are way too many links in this post. But with the possible exception of the one to the Hubble-galaxy beer steinunless of course you happen to want onethey are ALL worth following if you love Hubble. Take your time.
Eating chocolates in space, floating them in front of me then floating and eating them like I am a fish
My spacewalk was amazing, we had some tough problems, but through them all, the view of our precious planet was beautiful
Getting re-adjusted to gravity, let go of a small bag of groceries and must have expected it to float, luckily no damage
But if you were just watching cable news, each new twist up there was given about half a minute, if you didnt have to wait for it in the crawl. Never mind that the decision to keep Hubble alive had been a reprieve won by popular demand. Earth business looms large these daysthe economy, our ongoing political civil war, Major League Baseball. The daredevil refurbishing of humanitys eye on the cosmos seemed relegated to a feelgood sideshow, as if people needed to assume it would go off without a glitch (which, thankfully, it almost did). Perhaps many people were too anxious about basic stuff to enjoy the advanced anxiety of high adventure, much less the overpowering perspective that is Hubbles two-edged gift.
To science fans and space nerds, though, this was the story, and if wed had our druthers the coverage wouldve been wall-to-wall. (Literally: in my future world, every home will have a wall-size screen with a live feed from a Webcam on the International Space Station or Cassini.) I have been riveted by the Hubble
ever since speed-reading a book Larry Marschall reviewed back in our October 2008 issue, The Universe in a Mirror: The Saga of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Visionaries Who Built It. As its subtitle suggests, Robert Zimmermans book is a collective biography of the instrument and the mortals who struggled for decades to heave it into the heavens. (That makes a picture in my mind something like the classic on the right. In Hubbles case, however, much of the action was dreary lobbying for funds.) In the light of the whole story, this fourth and final servicing mission could not help but make me flash back to the first one, in December 1993the one that turned Hubble from, in Zimmermans words, what might be the greatest catastrophe to hit American astronomy ever into a triumph and a turning point in human evolution.
When Hubble was launched on April 24, 1990, forty-four years after its conception and two decades into the design process, scientists quickly realized that something was horribly wrong. Despite the crystalline clarity of orbital space, the images the telescope was beaming back to Earth were blurry. Incredibly, Hubbles main mirror had been groundperfectlyto the wrong specifications. How could this happen?? During the fine polishing process, which took nine months, repeated warnings had been ignored, in part because the test instruments that were raising the red flags were so much less precise than the newfangled reflective null corrector that the engineers simply didnt believe them. (Why, then, had that exquisitely machined null corrector needed three washers hand-inserted to make its measuring rod the right length?!) This shocking oversight had been shielded from discovery by a mess of other factors: chronic budget crises; the urgency of an already long-delayed project that had just lost another four years to the Challenger disaster; high security at the manufacturing facility (which also did military work) that kept NASA observers out; and the human tendency to look the other waya phrase Zimmerman hammers like a funeral drumroll, for it was what had brought Challenger down. The flaw in Hubbles mirror was eventually traced to some chipped nonreflective paint that had given a critical laser beam a wrong shiny place to bounce off1.3 millimeters wrong.
The myopic Hubble became the butt of late-night talk-show jokes and cartoons, such as one showing Mr. Magoo as its designer. It was a low point as low as any in NASAs history; the very survival of the agency was in doubt. Administrators seriously considered cutting their losses on the $2.5-billion-and-counting project. [T]he urge to kill Hubble at NASA headquarters was strong, Zimmerman writes. But the telescope had been designed to be serviced by astronauts in orbit, and diehard astronomers and engineers were already brainstorming a fix. After months of discouraging dead ends, a key design element fell into place at a strategy meeting in Germany when Jim Crocker of the Space Telescope Science Institute went back to his hotel to take a shower. As he folded out the sliding, pivoting European showerhead to the desired angle, Crocker suddenly saw how a suite of small corrective mirrors could be swung precisely into place between Hubbles misshapen mirror and the instruments it carried. Three years later, in December 1993, a crew of seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Endeavorput Hubbles glasses on and made several other improvements in a record five back-to-back space walks totaling 35 hours and 28 minutes. The prescription was perfect. And the stunning, data-drenched images that have exploded our conception of the cosmos started flooding in. (The showerhead device, COSTAR, the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement, was removed on this last mission, since all Hubble's newer instruments have the optical correction built in.)
Zimmermans Hubble narrative is a sort of modern Pilgrims Progress. It shows instructively how we humans accomplish great things: in spite of ourselves. Vision, skill, and above all, perseverance must fight their way through the Slough of Bureaucracy, the resistance of error, inertia, politics, and money. The Hubble heroes, hardly household namesLyman Spitzer, John Bahcall, C. Robert ODell, Sandra Faber, and Riccardo Giacconi, among otherscome across as very human in every way but one: their almost superhuman refusal to give up.
Hubble has literally brought the wonders of the cosmos into homes worldwide. You now find Hubble images not only in astronomy textbooks, but also on the covers, variously, of a book of music for the trumpet, a German art magazine, a book that teaches English to Japanese children, and an album of a rock group.
The effect is to make disorientation intimateto bring the big bang to the breakfast table. On the one handthanks a lot, Hubble!our notion of the universe and our place in it has suffered another wrenching, dizzying dislocation. Weve known for four centuries that we werent exactly the focus of a cozy little cosmos, but it turns out we had no clue. To glimpse the actual, unimaginable scale of things is as crushing as it is exhilarating. Sometimes people ask me if I dont feel depressed by the apparently diminishing role of humans in the universe, Livio writes. As a scientist, he says he doesnt, because that incredible-shrinking-man feeling is the paradoxical measure of our growth:
[N]otice that the apparent decrease in our physical presence is only a consequence of the tremendous increase of our knowledge. And Hubble played a crucial role in that expansion of our horizons of understanding.
But its telling that the question does come up. Maybe better than anyone, Paul Simon captured the feeling in his prescient 1986 song The Boy in the Bubble: These are the days of miracle and wonder/ so dont cry, baby, dont cry dont cry.
You cant unsee those images, and they pose a challenge that, while not humanitys final exam, is at least its GRE. Even when were not consciously thinking about it, which is most of the time, the Hubbles-eye view is now the deep background of everything we do. I think weve barely begun to process what that implies for our lives and purposes.
On the other hand, having these images, and having them be oursto put on our coffee mugs and mouse pads if we wantis helping us do just that. Its so grand out there, and so gorgeous, and somehow, as negligible as we arejust a mite on a motewere entitled. The atoms of our bodies were made in furnaces like those; were looking at a show of the forces that formed us. The eyes and brain to see it all are among its most improbable creations. Its hard not to conclude that the Hubble is serving a re-ligious functionin the original meaning of the word, to reconnect to ones sourcefor humanitys next phase, for people who arent religious as well as for those who are. Now the Hubble vistas are our stained-glass windows, writes my friend Marc Ian Barasch, no churchgoer. Also our Sistine Chapel ceiling, I might add.
Sure, theres every difference between reconnecting with grand but blind forces of nature and with a deity held to be conscious, caring, and supernatural. But theres also a similarity: the magnitude of the awe the Hubble views command (Once... just once... I'd like to be able to look at photos or read an article of NASAs missions and not [bawl] like a baby), and the requirement to recalibrate our scale of thinking. If you believe theres a God, youve got to admit we underrated Him: the Almighty of the Book of Job, thundering Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?, is a piker. As a 30s movie reporter might say, Get me rewrite! (But keep the poetry.) If you dont believe theres a God, you could still be forgiven for gasping Omigod!or Holy #@*&!at those sights.
The scientists who first conceived the Hubble seem to have had an inkling of this. According to Zimmerman, at a 1965 NASA study conference in Woods Hole, Massachusetts,
the astronomers were in such agreement . . . about building a big space telescope that at one point things devolved into a lighthearted discussion on what to name it. Fred Whipple suggested that they name it the Great Orbiting Device, or GOD.
Some of the language surrounding the operation of the Hubble, too, has a poetry thats almost scriptural: first motion, almost always a big event in the world of space exploration, and first light, the technical term for the first look through any new telescope, which acquires even more of a Genesis resonance now that we may literally be looking at the first light of the universe, in the words of USAF Colonel Michael Good, a spacewalker on the just-returned mission. Wondering about the stars is almost certainly an impulse even older than wondering about a God; it could have marked the dividing line we crossed to become human.
So while physically the Hubble may bear an uncanny resemblance to the Stanley Cup, as one wag of my acquaintance pointed out, metaphysically its more like that black slab in Stanley Kubricks 2001: touch it, and be forever changed. And touch it we do: that the Hubble and its orbit were designed for maintenance by human hands is part of what has made it just the right intermediary and transitional object to deliver what could have been a more traumatic initiatory blow. (The other thing that makes it so perfect, after all, is its comeback from imperfection and disgrace. We can relate. Change one letter and it would be the Humble.) Anyone who believes that robotic space exploration, with its lower risk and longer reach, is the only way to go should read this journal entry by astronaut F. Story Musgrave, written just after the return of that December 1993 Hubble-saving mission he captained. Its a visceral and kinesthetic firsthand account of what Miles OBrien (repeat link) calls those high-tech, high-drama ballets in the void. Man meeting machine in the harshest environment of all. Knowledge isnt quite real or ours unless we lay our hands and stake our lives on it.
Hubbles successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched about five years from now, wont inspire the same affection: its described as a tennis court-sized telescope operating in a distant, isolated orbit, far beyond Earths moonnearly a million miles away to Hubbles neighborly 360. It isnt designed to be serviced, writes astronaut Steven A. Hawley (repeat link), who was Hubbles midwife:
[The Webbs] intended orbit 932,000 miles from Earth will likely put it out of reach of astronauts, at least in the near-term. But, perhaps heeding the lessons of Hubble, NASA has contemplated installing a device that would allow it to be captured by a robot or piloted spacecraft in the future.
Cold comfort. Astronaut John Grunsfeld on the final mission called himself literally a Hubble hugger; no one will be hugging the Webb anytime soon. Fortunately, Galaxy Zoothe subject of Charles Lius new Out There (Natural History, June 2009), and of my next post
herehas invented a new way to get up close and personal with extreme features of the universe, and usefully so. Zoo regulars even get to write their names in galaxies.
So heres to HubbleI hoist my galaxy beer steinan instrument that conceptually cannot only give us great science, but also give us a sense of what is our place in the universe, as Story Musgrave told Ted Koppel. We wake in our tiny cradle, an infant that for the first time focuses its eyes and smiles at its mother.
Slideshow: all about how a Hubble imageperhaps the most famous one of all, the Pillars of Creationgets made from raw data.
Some of those choices are frankly artistic. As Joshua M. Greenberg wrote in Public Understanding of Science [subscription only]:
The picture [Pillars of Creation] had been shot at an angle to make the gaseous pillars appear perfectly vertical, while their true orientation from Earths perspective is about 60° clockwise (which would have made a markedly less inspirational image).
In the words of Hubble Heritage image processor Zolt Levay (PDF), perhaps the person most responsible for shaping the public perception of Hubble imageryhis colleagues call him the Ansel Adams of space:
I hope [to] convey some of the technical things were looking at in the image but also, in a more emotional way, convey the grandeur of what were looking at and the awe that I feel when I look at these images. . . . The subjective choices are informed by whats inherently in the data. . . . but also informed by. . . principles from the art world on how to convey images in the strongest way possible.
Cultural historian Elizabeth Kessler sees the influence of 19th-century American Romantic landscape paintingfrom another era of discoveryon the Hubble images. Her dissertation was titled Spacescapes: Romantic Aesthetics and the Hubble Space Telescope Images.