The Trouble With Hubble

The Hubble Space Telescope was supposed to boldly extend humanity's vision where no eyes had seen before. It was to let astronomers chart distant galaxies, discover planets around other stars, and discern the fate of the universe. But so far, the lessons from the orbiting observatory have been more earthbound than heavenly. As astrophysicist Eric J. Chaisson reveals in this eye-opening, caustic memoir of his tenure as a senior scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, the pursuit of knowledge was imperiled by ineptitude and bickering.

What's more, Chaisson argues, the true story of Hubble differs from the accepted saga of initial success, subsequent failure, and ultimate redemption. Yes, NASA did announce a flawed mirror on the $2 billion observatory two months after its much-hyped launch in April, 1990, and spacewalking astronauts did fit corrective lenses during a December, 1993, space-shuttle mission. But the relentless focus on the mirror was itself myopic, says Chaisson. The space telescope "is now no more `fixed' than it was originally `broken."'

Chaisson offers a close-up view of a spacecraft so complex and poorly engineered that, from the start, just keeping it going was a major challenge. Opening and closing the main aperture door, for example, threw the craft into a paroxysm of shivers. Several of the gyroscopes failed. The star-finding systems balked. And the power-generating solar arrays flapped "like the flexible wings of a spaceborne pterodactyl," throwing off the telescope's aim for precious minutes of each orbit.

Even so, and despite the flawed mirror, Hubble could do good science, Chaisson reports. Scientists found a way to restore most of the planned image sharpness, or resolution, with computer corrections. But the procedure limited the telescope's ability to see dim objects, such as planets around other stars. "Hubble's loss, we all now agreed, was to sensitivity, not to resolution, an important point that the media refused to get straight for months," Chaisson explains. That's one of several reasons the 1993 fixes weren't nearly as dramatic as NASA claimed. Indeed, Chaisson asserts, the agency avoided comparing pictures from the repaired telescope with the old computer-enhanced ones for fear the public would see through the hoopla.

Chaisson, now at Tufts University, slips pithy astronomy lessons in amid the drama of Hubble's travails. But the book's juiciest parts reveal backbiting and internal battles. NASA founded the Space Telescope Science Institute--a consortium of 21 universities that oversees Hubble's scientific agenda--in 1981, under pressure from space scientists. And ever after, it resented the loss of control. Chaisson says NASA's bureaucrats especially disliked him because, as director of educational programs, he dared to challenge NASA's "pure, unadulterated hype."

Consider Chaisson's effort to correct one of NASA's most egregious errors--the claim that Hubble can see seven times farther than any other telescope. "This is patently false, if only because our ground-based telescopes already perceive objects...close to the limits of the... universe," he explains. NASA's response, he says, was to slap a gag order on the institute and try to get him fired. And not even strong backing from the institute director got the message through. After NBC's top science correspondent reported that Hubble will let mankind see 10 times farther than ever before, a NASA public affairs official gloated. "Looks like my boss got the best of your boss," she said to Chaisson.

Some astronomers were hardly more mature. One of Chaisson's chief duties was scheduling some of the observations the telescope would make. His plan--which NASA first resisted but embraced after the mirror fiasco left it desperate for good press--was to release stunning pictures of galaxies and other stellar objects. But many researchers wanted to study the images in secret so others couldn't beat them to discoveries. At one meeting, Chaisson says, an astronomer screamed that a couple of his favorite cosmic objects were on Chaisson's list, and shouted: "If you look at those objects before I do, I'll kill you." But Chaisson had some experience dealing with tantrums. "Having a child in kindergarten helped," he writes.

These tales are, of course, self-serving and one-sided. And even Chaisson is prey to the small-mindedness that the troubled space telescope seemed to arouse. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, he writes: "My greatest concern was that fighting would break out in Arabia and the media wouldn't even notice the encouraging results we were now obtaining with Hubble."

Still, Chaisson brings us a heretofore untold story, as well as a wealth of fascinating details. Where else could you learn that acid fallout from each space-shuttle launch kills thousands of fish in lagoons around Cape Canaveral? Or that the nation's spy-satellite makers had solved many of the problems that plagued Hubble, but refused to pass on the findings? Or that many scientists wanted the repair mission to fail? (Astronauts working successfully in space would boost prospects for the space station, which they saw as incredibly costly and scientifically barren aerospace-industry pork.) Add it all up, and Chaisson's tale is a sobering reminder that even the grandeur of the final frontier is no match for the hubris--and pettiness--of humanity.

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