It didn’t amount to much at first. Launched into orbit aboard the space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990, amid flurries of hope and hype, the Hubble Space Telescope promptly faltered. Rather than remaining locked on its celestial targets, it trembled and shook, quaking like a photophobic vampire whenever sunlight struck its solar panels.
Opening its protective front door to let starlight in perturbed the telescope so badly that it fell into an electronic coma. Worst of all, Hubble turned out to be myopic. Its primary light-gathering mirror, eight feet in diameter and said to be the smoothest large object ever fashioned by humans, had been figured perfectly wrong.
Its design was already a compromise. The astronomers had wanted a bigger telescope in a higher orbit. They got a smaller one orbiting only 350 miles high, so that it could fit in the shuttle’s cargo bay and remain within reach for servicing by astronauts working in space. Some grumbled that science was being subordinated to flyboy flash.
Yet the shuttle proved to be the mission’s salvation. Had Hubble been lofted beyond the shuttle’s reach, it might have gone down in history as a billion-dollar blunder. Instead it was constructed so that its key components, from cameras and computers to gyroscopes and radio transmitters, remained accessible for replacement or repair. One astronaut took this requirement so seriously that he visited the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum after-hours, put a ladder up to its Hubble replica, and practiced swapping out instruments to make sure everything fit. Everything did, and five nearly perfect shuttle service missions proved essential in transforming Hubble from a 12-ton dud into one of the world’s most productive and popular scientific machines.
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