*all photos courtesy of NASA
Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down
from Jackson Browne’s For A Dancer
Of the many strange episodes that have played themselves out in the course of my life, one of the more interesting was the two and a half years I spent working on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST) project.
The notion of building a large orbiting space telescope was conceived in 1946 by the noted astronomer Lyman Spitzer who wrote a paper titled Astronomical advantages of an extra-terrestrial observatory. The main idea was that by getting beyond the distorting effects of earth’s atmosphere and away from civilization’s light pollution, a new and much clearer view of the heavens was possible. The National Academy of Sciences recommended building the Hubble in 1962, and finally in 1977 Congress funded the project and the design and construction of the Hubble Space Telescope began.
I joined the project in 1984 as a writer, though my over-blown title was Systems Engineer. I produced technical documentation on the five Scientific Instruments that Hubble contained and served as the technical secretary to the Maintenance Mission Operations Planning Team that planned (oh so presciently as it turned out) for a possible ‘infant mortality’ on the main HST deployment mission.
I worked at NASA’s Marshal Space Flight Center located on Redstone Arsenal in my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama. Just about everything about it was interesting. I attended numerous meetings with famous astronomers, astronauts, shuttle experts, physicists, cosmologists, engineers and assorted space and rocket scientists. I didn’t contribute much but I observed plenty and it was nearly always fascinating (when it wasn’t boring beyond belief or simply overwhelming in its complexity – at a certain level of discussion scientists are capable of sounding like so many clucking chickens).
To attend meetings I often flew to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, the muggiest most humid place on earth, and frequently to Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland (just outside Washington D.C.), and to Baltimore where the Space Telescope Science Institute (STsci) is located, and occasionally out to Sunnyvale, California where Lockheed had the actual telescope under lock and key in a giant clean room.
At my homebase at Marshal Space Flight Center I got to go and observe the goings on at the WETF (pronounced WET-F), which stands for the Wet Environment Training Facility. The WETF is a huge multi-story building containing a massive tank filled with water where astronauts train to simulate conditions in zero gravity. All of the special purpose tools we designed for our emergency maintenance mission had to be tested there and all of the on-orbit maintenance procedures had to be run through again and again until they were perfected.
The HST deployment mission was originally slated to occur on the very next shuttle flight when the Challenger disaster occurred. I was home sick with the flu that day and watched it happen on live television.
I did not at first realize that it would spell the end of my involvement with HST. I had been shopping for an apartment in Maryland as I was to be assigned to the HST Control Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute for the launch, deployment and Orbital Verification phase (a nominal 30 days) of the Hubble Space Telescope Mission. But the entire project went into ‘station keeping’ mode while we waited to learn when we would be able to launch and deploy the Hubble. It turned out to be nearly four years before we flew another shuttle.
It’s a good thing we went through all of that planning and training for an emergency mission because there was an urgent problem following the initial deployment of HST on April 25, 1990. A miniscule but devastating flaw was discovered in the curvature of the main mirror. Our plan for an emergency maintenance mission was immediately put into play; nevertheless it took until December 1993 before a camera was added that optically corrected the flaw in the mirror. The Hubble has been a hero ever since.
The Hubble Space Telescope has been a giant leap forward for science. Much of what we know about the universe, much of what is understood in the fields of astronomy and cosmology we have learned as a direct result of the deployment (and vision correction) of the Hubble Space Telescope. It has reignited our interest in the universe and has inspired amateur astronomers to seek out ways to view the cosmos, with many searching for telescopes such as the Celestron Powerseeker 80eq so that they can experience the wonders of our universe for themselves. The Hubble Space Telescope continues to reveal the universe’s secrets.
Before the Hubble was deployed black holes were just an arcane theory. We now know that they are found in every galaxy in the universe including our own Milky Way. The important discoveries of HST are many.
But for anyone as visual as I am, what’s really important are the images Hubble has produced. They are stunning, both in terms of their scientific import and their sheer ethereal beauty, and the experts who worked on the project have been as stunned as anyone.
All in all I have to say that my time on the Hubble Space Telescope project was a highlight of my life. I have often wished I could find my way back to that kind of work but it just hasn’t been in the cards. It’s funny how the universe unfolds sometimes. But one thing is certain, its wonders are overwhelming and every new discovery leads to even deeper mysteries, and all that we now know is but a miniscule portion of that which there is to be known.