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In Love with Hubble

June 3, 2009
Blogger’s note: Admittedly, there are way too many links in this post. But with the possible exception of the one to the Hubble-galaxy beer stein—unless of course you happen to want one—they are ALL worth following if you love Hubble. Take your time.

If you searched, you could certainly find coverage of space shuttle Atlantis’s successful last mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope—on the official Hubble Site, on NASA TV, on the Facebook page Last Mission to Hubble, even on Twitter, where @IamHubble speaks for itself in a rather bland, not to say HAL-like voice (“They continue to check out my instruments and it is going well”), and @Astro_Mike Massimino has a lot more to say:

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 didn’t 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 days—the economy, our ongoing political civil war, Major League Baseball. The daredevil refurbishing of humanity’s 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 Hubble’s two-edged gift.

To science fans and space nerds, though, this was the story, and if we’d had our druthers the coverage would’ve 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 Zimmerman’s 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 Hubble’s 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 1993—the one that turned Hubble from, in Zimmerman’s 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, Hubble’s main mirror had been ground—perfectly—to 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 didn’t 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 way”—a phrase Zimmerman hammers like a funeral drumroll, for it was what had brought Challenger down. The flaw in Hubble’s mirror was eventually traced to some chipped nonreflective paint that had given a critical laser beam a wrong shiny place to bounce off—1.3 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 NASA’s 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 Hubble’s misshapen mirror and the instruments it carried. Three years later, in December 1993, a crew of seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Endeavor put Hubble’s “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.)

 Hubble Heroes: Lyman S. Spitzer, Jr., John N. Bahcall, and Sandra M. Faber

Zimmerman’s Hubble narrative is a sort of modern Pilgrim’s 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 names—Lyman Spitzer, John Bahcall, C. Robert O’Dell, Sandra Faber, and Riccardo Giacconi, among others—come across as very human in every way but one: their almost superhuman refusal to give up.

The result has been “the biggest revolution in astronomy this side of Galileo,” as Miles O’Brien writes in a marvelous summing-up of Hubble’s legacy. And, like Galileo’s, the Hubble’s scientific revolution has proved culturally seismic. Only scientists with supercomputers can decode Hubble’s raw data, but from the start they’ve turned its bits and bytes back into visual images, both as tools of analysis and to share the telescope’s discoveries with the general public. The Hubble has taken more than half a million of them. And those incredible images of the universe, made available for free on HubbleSite (well, not counting your tax dollars), have percolated into every corner of popular culture.

“The Hubble Space Telescope has shown us Einstein’s universe. And when I say ‘us’ I don’t mean just the scientists,” wrote one of them, Mario Livio (PDF), whose book Is God a Mathematician? was on our March Bookshelf.

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.

HubbleSite itself invites you to download high-resolution images for wall murals, art prints, and computer wallpaper, and of course there are gorgeous coffee-table books, calendars, and even note cards and stickers. But you can also have a distant galaxy or supernova on your beer stein, coffee mug, journal, or custom wristwatch (I confess to breaking down and ordering those last two, as well as this Father’s Day gift for my 91-year-old dad). There’s hardly anyone on the planet who hasn’t absorbed at least a few of the Hubble images into his or her consciousness.

NASA-JPL Hubble slide show  (Click in control bar for full screen, Esc to return.)

The effect is to make disorientation intimate—to bring the big bang to the breakfast table. On the one hand—thanks a lot, Hubble!—our notion of the universe and our place in it has suffered another wrenching, dizzying dislocation. We’ve known for four centuries that we weren’t 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 don’t feel depressed by the apparently diminishing role of humans in the universe,” Livio writes. As a scientist, he says he doesn’t, 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 it’s 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 don’t cry, baby, don’t cry don’t cry.”

You can’t unsee those images, and they pose a challenge that, while not “humanity’s final exam,” is at least its GRE. Even when we’re not consciously thinking about it, which is most of the time, the Hubble’s-eye view is now the deep background of everything we do. I think we’ve barely begun to process what that implies for our lives and purposes.

On the other hand, having these images, and having them be ours—to put on our coffee mugs and mouse pads if we want—is helping us do just that. It’s so grand out there, and so gorgeous, and somehow, as negligible as we are—just a mite on a mote—we’re entitled. The atoms of our bodies were made in furnaces like those; we’re looking at a show of the forces that formed us. The eyes and brain to see it all are among its most improbable creations. It’s hard not to conclude that the Hubble is serving a re-ligious function—in the original meaning of the word, “to reconnect” to one’s source—for humanity’s next phase, for people who aren’t 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, there’s every difference between reconnecting with grand but blind forces of nature and with a deity held to be conscious, caring, and supernatural. But there’s 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 NASA’s missions and not [bawl] like a baby”), and the requirement to recalibrate our scale of thinking. If you believe there’s a God, you’ve 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 don’t believe there’s 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 that’s 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 it’s more like that black slab in Stanley Kubrick’s 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. It’s a visceral and kinesthetic firsthand account of what Miles O’Brien (repeat link) calls “those high-tech, high-drama ballets in the void. Man meeting machine in the harshest environment of all.” Knowledge isn’t quite real or ours unless we lay our hands and stake our lives on it.

Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched about five years from now, won’t inspire the same affection: it’s described as “a tennis court-sized telescope” operating in a “distant, isolated orbit,” “far beyond Earth’s moon”—nearly a million miles away to Hubble’s neighborly 360. “It isn’t designed to be serviced,” writes astronaut Steven A. Hawley (repeat link), who was Hubble’s midwife:

[The Webb’s] 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 Zoo—the subject of Charles Liu’s new “Out There” (Natural History, June 2009), and of my next post here—has 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 here’s to Hubble—I hoist my galaxy beer stein—“an 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 image—perhaps the most famous one of all, the “Pillars of Creation”—gets made from raw data.
  • More on how choices are made in the creation of Hubble images.
  • 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 Earth’s 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 imagery”—his colleagues call him “the Ansel Adams of space”:

    I hope [to] convey some of the technical things we’re looking at in the image but also, in a more emotional way, convey the grandeur of what we’re looking at and the awe that I feel when I look at these images. . . . The subjective choices are informed by what’s inherently in the data. . . . but also informed by. . . principles from the art world on how to convey images in the strongest way possible.

    In this cool slideshow, “Art and the Universe: An Intersection of Understanding and Beauty” (PDF), he illustrates the point with examples from the Hubble, Monet, van Gogh, great landscape photography, and the comic strip “Opus.”

  • Cultural historian Elizabeth Kessler sees the influence of 19th-century American Romantic landscape painting—from another era of discovery—on the Hubble images. Her dissertation was titled “Spacescapes: Romantic Aesthetics and the Hubble Space Telescope Images.”
  • Americans’ annual pizza bill exceeds NASA’s budget.
  • “Oh, baby, look at that.” Mission accomplished, the Atlantis shuttle crew releases Hubble.

STS-125 crew video of the release of the Hubble Space Telescope from the cargo bay of the space shuttle Atlantis

NASAtelevision’s Channel  (Click in control bar for full screen, Esc to return.)


     Back in Florida, a fascinating array of mission mementos are unpacked from Atlantis. What did the crew carry with them to be touched by space?

Annie Gottlieb
See the first post: “Little Worms-In-The-Pocket”
(Annie Gottlieb)

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Click images below
to enlarge and shrink.

“Astro Mike” Massimino and Michael Good up there with Hubble.

NASA, “The lighter side of spacewalking”

Dust Band Around the Nucleus of “Black Eye Galaxy”

NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)

The Helix Nebula: a Gaseous Envelope Expelled by a Dying Star

NASA, ESA, C.R. O'Dell (Vanderbilt University), M. Meixner and P. McCullough (STScI)

Infant Stars in a Nearby Galaxy
NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) — ESA/Hubble Collaboration

December 1993: Hubble gets its
glasses on.

NASA/ESA via Wikimedia Commons

Spiral Galaxy in the Hubble Deep Field

NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team

Eskimo Nebula

Andrew Fruchter and STScl

Carina Nebula Panorama

NASA, ESA, and Nathan Smith

Supernova Remnant E0102 from Hubble
Hubble Heritage Team, ESA, NASA

Horsehead Nebula in Orion


Whirlpool Galaxy

NASA, Hubble Heritage Team, ESA, STScl

Separated at birth

Hubblesite and The Sports Fan Vent

Monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s
2001: A Space Odessey

Movie Images

Pillars of Creation in a Star-Forming Region, Eagle Nebula

NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University)