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Hubble: Toil and Trouble

Michael J. Disney

THE UNIVERSE IN A MIRROR: The Saga of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Visionaries Who Built It. Robert Zimmerman. xviii + 287 pp. Princeton University Press, 2008. $29.95.

The%20Sombrero%20GalaxyClick to Enlarge Image The Hubble Space Telescope is America’s cathedral in the sky. Five thousand skilled craftsmen toiled for almost 20 years to ready it and put it aloft. Unfortunately, once it was in space the steeple fell off, when it was discovered that the mirror had been ground incorrectly. But eventually astronauts installed corrective optics, and Hubble stood in all its glory, a monument to the curiosity, the imagination, the persistence and the ingenuity of humankind. At a time when all is not going well for Americans, this great telescope is an achievement of which they can be justly proud.

Consider but a tiny selection of all the exciting observations Hubble has made or helped to make. We now know that stars are commonly born surrounded by rings of dust and gas out of which planets can form, that most galaxies have super-massive black holes in their cores, that quasars are colliding galaxies that feed one another’s black holes, that neighboring galaxies have puzzlingly diverse histories, and that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. What more could we have hoped for from this marvellous machine, whose life in space now hangs by a thread and must certainly come to an end by 2015?

Zimmerman’s book is a blow-by-blow account of how the Large Space Telescope, as it was originally called, got built—and a cracking good read it makes. Like most massive projects built in a democracy, Hubble has a messy story. As visionaries, astronomers, managers, engineers, politicians and budgets clashed, there was rarely certainty as to the outcome. If the rationale for the telescope hadn’t been so compelling, it would surely have been cancelled (it was scaled back) somewhere along its rocky road.

There were plenty of heroes along the way. As an insider (I’ve worked on the project for 30 years), I was fascinated to learn how much we all owe to people whose names have rarely made it into the press releases. Great dedication was occasionally required of these men and women, and it was forthcoming time and again. Careers and marriages were sometimes wrecked. I hope the participants can feel now that their sacrifices were not made in vain. Thank you heartily from us all.

But not everyone was a hero. More than once, lying nearly sank the project. Some NASA managers were determined to keep from Congress an honest appraisal of the cost, and NASA personnel have given me varying cost estimates, ranging from 2 billion to 11 billion dollars, depending on who was trying to sell what. For the most part, such deception was carried out with good intentions, to keep the project alive. But on other occasions, as in the case of the ill-starred mirror, commercial firms bought into the project at a “nominal” (that is to say, dishonest) level, expecting to cash in later, as is apparently the norm with military contracts. As a result, engineers were given skimpy resources and forced to deliver in an unrealistically short time—with results that were, alas, sometimes disastrous.

According to Zimmerman, the fiasco with the mirror, which got into space wrongly curved, was a direct consequence of budgeting and scheduling dishonesty. How the calamity was discovered as soon as the cameras were turned on, and how astronauts on a servicing mission later fixed it, is a gripping story, and in telling it, Zimmerman is at his best.

However byzantine NASA’s management structure—and it often seemed as if the weakest and worst were rising to the top—those managers got at least one crucial thing absolutely right at the start—they designed the telescope with the need for later servicing in mind. Human beings work best by evolution, not revolution, and the Space Shuttle missions to the telescope (the fifth of which is scheduled for launch in February 2009) have been the means not only of fixing our mistakes but also of enhancing the Hubble’s capability far beyond its original specifications.

Because Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, will be located a million miles out in space, there will be no opportunity to correct any problems after it is launched in 2013 or thereabouts. Keep your fingers crossed! And don’t be too hard on anybody if things do go wrong. Most epic projects have serious teething troubles. How can you get thousands of people to work together without the occasional misunderstanding, or lapse in imagination, or slip? I don’t know—and I don’t believe anybody else does either.

The difficulty of managing large projects is especially challenging now that lying and spin are becoming an accepted part of our business culture. If we are going to build even greater cathedrals, and I hope we will, then we’re going to have to mercilessly stamp out the systemic dishonesty that has become as prevalent in academia as it is on Wall Street. Look at the ridiculous hype that surrounded the recent opening of the Large Hadron Collider (calling it “the Big Bang Machine,” for instance). It is now broken and will take months to fix. Cathedrals are like that. Surely lying and slick salesmanship are, in the end, incompatible with high scientific endeavour. One has only to look at the meagre scientific returns from the once highly touted International Space Station to see just how much dishonesty can cost. The Universe in a Mirror, with its revelations of dishonesty in one big project, should be compulsory reading for all who are interested in Big Science. I like the advice Carl Sagan offers in The Demon-Haunted World:

Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of confusion and bamboozle requires vigilance, dedication, and courage. But if we don’t practice these tough habits of thought, . . . we risk becoming a nation of suckers, . . . up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along.

But let’s not forget the heroes who got things done despite all. My own personal pantheon is headed by Dave Leckrone from Goddard Space Flight Center, who marshalled all those marvellous cameras and spectroscopes into space so that we could actually see through the telescope; Holland Ford from Johns Hopkins, who was largely responsible for two key instruments; and Jim Gunn, then at Caltech, who had the foresight to see that CCDs (charge-coupled devices), which are now the heart of every digital camera, were developed in time for Hubble to reach its full potential. Zimmerman tells enthralling tales of them, and of many other gallant soldiers—Bob O’Dell, Frank “Seppi” Cepollina, Lyman Spitzer, Jim Crocker and John Bahcall—who fought the good fight, some of whom fell on the field.

Make no small plans, they say. Hail to that. I know one young giant from Appalachia who turned up at the project in the early days with no relevant qualifications. He said, “Please, I want to work on this dream with you. I’ll do the cleaning if necessary.” And he did. Now he’s a valued member of the scientific staff. That’s why Hubble flew. And that’s why it eventually worked.

Zimmerman has written an engrossing account of a great story. Alas, he forgot to include the 15 percent of the crew who come from Europe. But we’re used to that.

Michael Disney is emeritus professor of astronomy at Cardiff University and has worked on Hubble Space Telescope instrument science teams since 1977. Presently he is on the Wide-Field-Camera-3 team, which is hoping to see its instrument go up on the next Shuttle.

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