It is a telescope, a time machine, and an American treasure. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is humanity’s eye on the universe and a working model of what’s best about the American spirit. Our curiosity, our hopes, our drive to understand fundamental truth, and our willingness to share our knowledge freely with the rest of the world are all exemplified by Hubble, which, even after more than a decade in orbit, manages to keep outdoing itself. Just this week, scientists at the telescope’s home office in Baltimore announced that Hubble has glimpsed galaxies all the way back to within half a billion years of the birth of the universe. Not bad for an observatory that NASA is planning to kill unceremoniously and prematurely.
Hubble could not have imaged its “Ultra Deep Field” using the hardware launched with it in 1990. Humans can only see the depths of the universe because of upgrades performed in orbit. In March 2002, NASA astronauts aboard space shuttle Columbia visited Hubble in low-Earth orbit. At a height of 350 miles and a speed of 17,000 miles per hour, they installed a new camera, resurrected a dormant infrared camera, and upgraded its solar-power-gathering wings and its electronic system. That mission gave America and the world a new telescope that can see farther out into space, and therefore deeper back in time, than we ever have. Hubble, already in orbit for more than a decade, was a new machine, poised to make incredible new discoveries about the cosmos.
That mission, dubbed “Servicing Mission 3B,” turns out to have been the last great science mission for the space-shuttle program, which will be retired in 2010 to make way for manned missions to Mars. It turned out to be the last complete mission for Columbia, which disintegrated as it entered the atmosphere on its subsequent mission, taking all souls on board with it. And much to the world’s surprise, SM3B has also turned out to be the last time humans will see the Hubble Space Telescope up close, to work with it, and to expand its scientific capabilities. NASA announced on January 16 that Servicing Mission 4, once scheduled to take place this year, will not happen. As a result, Hubble’s scientific growth will be stunted, and it will probably fail in 2007 and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere sometime after 2010. Astronomy’s great time machine will die, because NASA is plotting its untimely demise. This is a real shame, because that cancelled mission would have seen the installation of a couple of new cameras–already built–that would have pushed our knowledge of the universe even closer to the moment of creation, and would have kept the telescope healthy through at least 2010 and probably longer. It would also keep alive one of America’s best faces before the world–our optimistic, generous side. In a time of war, positive public relations are critical to keeping the world comfortable with us.
But don’t count it out just yet. If the outpouring of support since January is any guide, the entire scientific world is hoping that the telescope has one life left to live. And Hubble is the original comeback kid.
Originally set for launch in 1986, the Challenger disaster forced NASA to delay Hubble’s launch for several years. In the Challenger’s wake the space program itself almost came apart. NASA struggled for breath, got back on its feet, and eventually launched Hubble four years later, only to learn that its primary mirror was flawed. Hubble was nearsighted. NASA had gone from one disaster to another, and so had the apparently cursed Hubble.
For three years Hubble struggled, and taught NASA not to give a marquee program a name rhyming with “trouble” ever again. But the scientists never gave up, and kept scrambling to fix the ailing telescope.
Hubble also taught NASA and the world what “Never say die” means, and after years of muddling along doing the best science it could, the beleaguered telescope was visited by space-shuttle astronauts who installed what amounted to a contact lens. Vision cleared, and Hubble became what it was always meant to be–and then some. Such visits with astronauts in orbit were always part of the plan, a fortunate and foresighted choice that made Hubble unique among our robotic explorers. As it aged, Hubble got better and better. And it did, and has. And Given the chance, it could get better still.
Hubble’s career has been unprecedented. Its scientific achievements are too numerous to note. Hubble helped us determine the age of our universe, and in providing evidence that the universe’s expansion is accelerating, Hubble brought us face to face with a new, mysterious force so poorly understood that we simply call it “dark energy.” Hubble proved that black holes really exist, and determined that these gravitational beasts lurk at the heart of most, and maybe even all, galaxies in the universe. Hubble helped confirm the existence of planets outside our solar system, and even probed the atmosphere of one of them.
Inside our own solar system, Hubble showed us global dust storms on Mars, watched a comet crash into Jupiter leaving an Earth-sized bruise, and brought us to the edges of our solar system with new views of Pluto and of even smaller objects farther out in the dark. The breadth of science that Hubble has beamed down to Earth is without peer. No other single mission or human design has taught us so much.
NASA’s decision to cancel its final servicing mission is regrettable. The wake of the Columbia disaster in February 2003 forced NASA to reconsider its safety rules for manned space flight, resulting in new standards that effectively forced its hand in the name of safety. But since space flight is inherently dangerous, the new focus on manned missions will only increase the danger to humans. A new and aggressive Chinese space program is undoubtedly playing a role too, as Washington probably seeks to halt what could be a new cold war while at the same time maintaining America’s edge in space. Thus we are going back to the moon and then on to Mars, inviting China and the rest of the world to come along if they want. But Hubble is already taking the world all the way to the edge of the cosmos, and for a relatively cheap price. Globally, no other name connects America with good, openness, and pure knowledge quite like Hubble. But NASA is plotting to kill it instead of capitalizing on it.
The missions to the moon, to Mars, and beyond will now become NASA’s central focus, and will probably represent a grand time in human history once humanity buys into it. We will face danger and uncertainty, and we will overcome them. We will create incredible technology that will change our lives on Earth, and we will set foot on alien worlds. We may build an interplanetary, even interstellar, civilization. Our great-grandchildren, looking back from a red world to a pale blue dot in the heavens, will note our time as the era when it all started. But as great as all that will be, it probably will never deliver the global understanding of the universe quite the way Hubble has.
Hubble unites the disparate wings of manned space flight and space science like no other mission has. For several years Hubble gave us a reason to put people in space at all, and to learn whether and how humans could work there (we found out we can). It joins the world’s best scientific minds and its youngest children, through rewritten textbooks and online education. As a technological achievement, the Hubble telescope may one day come to be seen as America’s pyramid; instead of commemorating dead gods, it explores a thriving universe.
It is one of the most complex, yet reliable, machines ever built. It orbits Earth at unimaginable speeds while staring at a tiny patch of apparently empty sky for days on end, and in doing so gives us a core sample of the cosmos. And primarily Americans thought it up, paid for it, built it, and operate it, and share its findings openly with the rest of the world. Hubble is orbiting proof that Americans are curious and giving people. In losing Hubble, America is losing not only the greatest observatory ever built and the single most important telescope since Galileo’s. America may well lose the best example of one of the things that the world admires most about us: Our ability to rise above the clouds of adversity and take in a universe worth exploring.
–David Raven is an pseudonym for an insider in the U.S. space program.