NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope only to find out that it didn't work (and still doesn't, technically).
By Adam Azra'el
(Photo by Jeremy Thomas)
The year was 1990, and the Hubble Space Telescope had been in development hell for so long that almost everybody had forgotten that it existed....
THE PRICE TAG
....everyone, that is, except for the engineers who were working on it....and the accountants who were nervously paying the astronomical monthly bills it was generating.
The now-world-famous Hubble Space Telescope project began as a love letter to the most amazing science that humanity could conceive. Its development was trumpeted publicly by NASA as the next great advance - a follow-up act to the moon landing and the doorway to our exploration of the galaxy. The project soared through congressional approvals and was granted a jaw-dropping $36 million budget.
The 1980s, we should note, was just an all-around awful decade for NASA. A series of publicity blows and failed projects gutted the agency, all of which set the Hubble project back several years beyond its original 1983 launch date. Then, in 1986, true disaster struck with the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, and the public's decades-long love affair with the NASA turned cold.
Ice cold, in the Hubble's case....all work on the project stopped, but some insane spark of hope kept it from being completely scrapped and instead it was stored. You can't just toss a multi-million dollar space telescope into a box out in the shed, though. It had to be kept in a clean room (not clean as in "swept regularly"; clean as in "engineers have to wear special suits and change in an airlock so that no speck of dust can possibly enter"). It had to be kept powered up. It had to be constantly purged with nitrogen. The total bill on this thoroughly dead-in-its-tracks project was a mind-numbing $6 million per month.
Somehow, NASA survived the darkness and the Hubble survived with it. Work eventually resumed and, in 1990, seven years after its projected launch date, the Hubble hit the sky with all of the fanfare that the still-struggling space agency was capable of generating. By the time of its launch, the project had run up a total tab of $4.7 billion - more than 130 times its original $36 million budget.
With a budget overrun that would make Jay Gatsby wince, it's safe to say that NASA was desperate for a win. Keeping the thing on ice for that long and then shooting it into space was basically the agency equivalent of playing Russian Roulette with five bullets in the gun. But they stepped up and took their shot, sending the "Fourth Great Observatory" hurtling into the black, and eagerly awaited their first images. Finally, the screens came to life and the Hubble delivered its magnificent view to the crew on the ground.
It was immediately evident to everyone involved that something had gone horribly, horribly wrong.
THE LITTLE NULL REFLECTOR THAT COULDN'T
To say the images were bad is the understatement of the century; the eager astronomers of the world could get a better view of the stars through a hole in the ceiling of a gas station bathroom. It was the nightmare of nightmares, and the ensuing investigation wouldn't be completed for two years.The trail eventually led back to a company called Perkin-Elmer, and three small devices called null reflectors.
Null reflectors were used to calibrate the enormous mirror which is the centerpiece of the Hubble Space Telescope. There were three of them which were used by the engineering team, all of which were manufactured by Perkin-Elmer. Two of them were regular old null reflectors (ah yes, you say, I'm quite familiar with the standard model), and one of them was a special null reflector which was custom-engineered for this exact project. That one, unfortunately, had a slight error. And when we say "slight", we mean that as a result, the giant mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope was off-kilter by approximately four microns, which is about one-fiftieth the width of a human hair.
This impossibly small error resulted in an impossibly large problem (remember, just figuring out what the problem was took two years). And even once the problem had been exposed, NASA still had to stare down the other conundrum - the Hubble was still in space, and it was never, ever going to come back to the ground.
It's safe to say that this is the point where most people would throw in the towel. We would cry our tears, then ask the military to just blow the thing up and put it out of its nine-year misery.
Thankfully for all of us, the folks at NASA aren't most people.
Pounding out what must be the most insane and expensive lemonade ever made, from what is surely one of the largest lemons life has ever created, the Hubble team rallied and got to work. They caught a small break - four microns, to be exact - because the mirror was wrong, but it turned out that the mirror was very precisely wrong. So precise, in fact, that the team was able to design a special lens which was also precisely four microns wrong....in the other direction. Essentially, the Hubble Space Telescope got itself a corrective contact lens.
Incredibly, the lens worked. The lens worked so well that almost nobody under the age of thirty-five has any idea that there was ever a problem. The images from the Hubble Space Telescope have given us our first glimpse of other galaxies, they've helped us determine the age of the universe, they've helped us determine the rate at which the universe is expanding....we have learned more about the universe in the last 27 years than we learned in the preceeding 27,000. For all the problems that it endured in its infancy, the Hubble has been exactly the pinnacle of modern science that we always hoped it would be.
And, coming in 2021, keep your eyes peeled for its successor: the James Webb Space Telescope! We'll cross our fingers that it has an easier start than its predecessor.
Adam Azra'el is the producer of The Lesser Stories podcast, a multi-instrumentalist, and a colossal fan of ham and cheese sandwiches. You can find him around the internet being a general pain in everyone's backside on facebook and instagram, and he has tweeted exactly once.