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Hubble at 25 II

April 23, 2015

In late 1990, a “Far Side” cartoon depicted a jittery flying saucer with a jittery planet in the background. The caption read, “Another photograph from the Hubble telescope.”

Hubble was launched 25 years ago tomorrow amid much fanfare. Within weeks, though, it was a national joke. Time magazine called it the “Blunder of the Century,” and columnist Dave Barry christened it the “Hubble Space paperweight.” David Letterman offered a “Top 10 Hubble Telescope Excuses” list, which included “The guy at Sears promised it would work fine.”

Even though the telescope was years late and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, its main mirror was flawed. Its curved surface had been ground to the wrong shape. It wasn’t a big error — it was off by less than the width of a human hair. Yet that tiny flaw turned what should have been pinpoint images of stars into out-of-focus blobs.

An investigation showed that the contractor hadn’t properly tested the mirror’s shape, and had ignored test results that showed possible problems. And NASA had provided poor oversight of the testing process.

Fortunately for Hubble and NASA, though, a clever scientist devised a way to overcome the problem — a set of optics that would act like contact lenses, bringing the view into proper focus. Space shuttle astronauts installed the system a few years later. It turned the space telescope from a national disgrace to a national treasure. More about that tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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