Friday, April 24, 2015

The Hubble Space Telescope: A Search for Science in the Twentieth Century

by Quincy Saul

(originally written Spring 2006 as a final paper for a class at Hampshire College titled "Astronomy and Public Policy" taught by Salman Hameed. Republished here on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Telescope.) 

Any interpretation or analysis of science must incorporate the context in which science is applied. The historical, political and economic circumstances in which science is practiced will determine not only the goals of science, but also the philosophy and method used to achieve them. Never a static ideal, always a didactic process, science is and has always been changing, exclusive of any single definition. This is especially important to understand in the twenty-first century, an open-ended era where there is a simultaneous apotheosis and vilification of science in the cultural consciousness. A faith-based technocracy of specialists are at the helm of what has become Big Science -- a fraternity of industry, technology, and politics. 

The Hubble Space Telescope has arguably done more to popularize a ‘pure’ science (in this case astronomy) than any other undertaking in history. In this process it has also come to reinforce the role that Big Science enjoys in society today. This is perhaps ironic, because the long and winding path that the Hubble took on the way to its almost miraculous success raised and continues to raise unanswered questions about the methodology that got it there. In this sense, the Hubble and its history are not only a microcosm of the scientific culture and climate that produced them, but can also serve at times as a poignant and thought-provoking illustration of the fusion of science, technology, industry, and politics.

The first proposal for a space telescope came a decade before Sputnik, in 1946 from astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer who was perforce employed, like many scientists of the time, by the war machine, doing research for the U.S. Air Force. He submitted his proposal, Astronomical Advantages of an Extra Terrestrial Observatory, to the RAND corporation, where it was subsequently classified for years. Thus from its very beginnings the enterprise was embedded in a political conduit which would shape and define its future.

While the Hubble was to become the largest technological and conceptual leap in astronomy since Galileo, in the initial decades of its inception the Hubble met with resistance from many parties. It was dismissed by most at first as science fiction. The now obvious advantages of a space based observatory were not apparent enough at the time to spark much interest in the public or in the majority of the scientific community, and the size of the project was unprecedented in the forties. However, technological innovations that arose from the international conflicts of the following decades, specifically in rocket science, brought the idea of a space based telescope closer to reality. 
Still, the size and cost of the project turned many away from it. It was the most complex undertaking in space-science to date (as opposed to the Apollo missions, which were not scientifically motivated). Some ground-based astronomers, already struggling financially, were rightly worried that a space astronomy initiative would compete with their already negligible funding. The years to come would be full of scientific and political turmoil. Years later, Spitzer was fond of remembering how an older colleague of his, Jesse Greenstein, said to him about the space telescope, “Lyman, you’re young, you’ll live to see it fail”. Against all odds, it is only due to the persistent work of many dedicated astronomers, engineers, and politicians that it didn’t.

The initially small community of advocates had their work cut out for them. The cost of their proposal necessitated federal funding, and so began the congressional path to the launch pad. Historian Robert W. Smith talked of how the Hubble was “[c]hiefly an American creation... the coalition building, compromise and bargaining entailed in winning approval for the Hubble Space Telescope are woven into the fabric of American society”. A growing alliance of scientists brought the proposal to NASA, who raised it before the Office of Management and Budget, where it was taken on to the House and Senate, and eventually to the White House. The telescope had to be sold to astronomers, NASA, industrial contractors, congress and the executive branch, and all of these parties influenced to varying degrees the conception and design that the project would eventually take. 
In the early to mid seventies, campaigning for the telescope got underway in earnest. The American Astronomical Society was split on the idea of a space telescope, and many of those opposed had legitimate arguments. It had never been done before. Since that influential organization had to remain politically neutral, it was up to individual advocates to enter into the scientifically shunned realm of politics. The few scientists who were willing to do this, headed by Spitzer, John Bahcall, and Martin Swartzchild, were persuasive in lobbying with politicians, industries and fellow scientists. The idea of a space telescope was also gaining a foothold in the popular consciousness with marketing and advertising. In 1972, DC Comics published a Superman episode featuring a space shuttle and a large space telescope, where Superman cleaned dust off the lens of the telescope with his x-ray vision. 
In the congressional realm, Smith described it as “a process in which no one ever had a complete grasp of what was happening”. Another very American tradition, this would prove to be a recurring theme. In what is sometimes referred to as ‘the first shot’, in June of 1974 the House Appropriation Subcommittee for NASA, in deliberations that lasted less than five minutes, slashed all funding for the Space Telescope for fiscal year 1975. The subcommittee was chaired by Edward Boland of Massachusetts, the same senator who would prohibit funding of the Nicaraguan Contras eight years later. He was to remain a staunch opponent of the Space Telescope. It was then taken to the senate, where as a result of lobbying by the industrial sectors, Senator Charles Mathias from Maryland was barely able to get the Space Telescope back into the NASA budget. Then, suddenly, President Nixon resigned, and his successor Ford cut funding for the Space Telescope in half. 
The political atmosphere of these times forced advocates to be constantly repackaging their product to appeal to the white house and congress. In this process, other nations were incorporated into the project, with the European Space Agency agreeing to pay for fifteen percent of the costs in exchange for fifteen percent of the observing time. 
The technology was also affected by this perpetual remodeling. During this period, the Space Telescope was linked with another NASA project, the space shuttle program. This was to form an interesting symbiosis. Smith noted that shuttle advocates used the telescope to justify the shuttle, and telescope advocates used the shuttle to justify the telescope. In the documentary Selling the Space Telescope, Smith relates how some critics argued that the cart was being put before the horse in an even broader sense; that the telescope was being used to sell the space program itself. The consequences would be far-reaching for everyone -- the design of the telescope was profoundly influenced by political compromise, and the politics of Big Science would be vindicated in the telescope’s success. But the outcome was not so certain; as Ed Weiler, a chief scientist for the telescope said, “[w]hether we like it or not, this program is going to become a national triumph or a national tragedy”. He was almost fired from NASA for saying this; a sure sign that he spoke the truth.

Tensions were high. C.R. Odell, a NASA project scientist who served as an interpreter between scientists and politicians, urged that the “strong support for the telescope was not always present, but is the result of a carefully orchestrated activity over the last few years to educate the ground based astronomers about the potential of a space telescope... We are now riding on a crest of their support, but if we fail to capitalize on it, we may lose it”. And so the battle in congress over the space telescope continued. 
It wasn’t always easy to explain to congressmen why a very expensive astronomy telescope would benefit the taxpayers. Perhaps Robert Wilson, an influential physicist, said it best. When asked by a congressional committee how research in particle physics would contribute to the defense of the US, he responded: “By helping to make it worth defending”.

But such arguments were not always persuasive. True to his outspoken opinion, the subcommittee chair Edward Boland canceled funding for the telescope again in 1976. In a risky feat of political foresight, NASA manager and space telescope advocate Noel Hinners succeeded in cutting even the planning funds for the space telescope, which would have allowed some research to continue. “The funds would not have helped,” Hinners explained, so in a not uncommon political tactic known as ‘the Washington monument game’, an apparently absolute cancellation was used to strengthen the the coalition against the verdict. It worked: in 1977, due to lobbying by the now substantial coalition of NASA, optical and aerospace industries, and independent scientists, when the NASA appropriations came up for a vote on the floor of the House, the space telescope was restored. And so, thirty years after Spitzer’s initial proposal, the real work began. Yet Smith emphasizes, as a result of all the tricky political maneuvering necessary to attain this stage, the space telescope was both “oversold and underfunded,” which would lead to many difficulties in the years to come.

Before they even started building it, the space telescope’s design had been altered considerably from its original projections. The main mirror size had been adjusted from 120 to 94 inches, and the number of instruments cut from seven to five. Much of its design was affected by its convergence with the shuttle. Shuttle enthusiasts even encouraged bringing the telescope back to Earth periodically for repairs. Most of the leading scientists strongly opposed this; Riccardo Giacconi, the first director of the Space Telescope Institute, wrote that “[i]f Hubble ever returns to the ground, it will most likely end up in the Smithsonian”. 
What we now call the Hubble is an amazing piece of technology. And perhaps most amazing of all is that it works. It’s 43 and a half feet long and weighs 12.3 tons, as big and heavier than a city bus. There are 400,000 different parts, 26,000 miles of wiring. The solar panels and one of the cameras were designed in Europe. Various teams under diverse leadership worked on the many interconnected and complex details of how this thing would work, leading to a web of intertwining bureaucracies that were in general cumbersome to the scientific goals of the mission.

They began grinding the lens for what would become the smoothest surface ever made in 1978. An optical company from Connecticut called Perkin-Elmer got the contract for the building of the main mirror in a low-bid auction -- in other words, the company who could build it the cheapest got the contract. But this is only one example of a larger trend; Smith reminds us that the approval for the telescope came at a price: everything was to be “[l]ow cost, high risk”. 
Another reason Perkin-Elmer got the contract was because they had also built over a dozen mirrors for space surveillance satellites that the Pentagon was using in a covert operation called Project Keyhole to look at the Earth. The popular belief is that the size of the shuttle’s cargo bay determined the size of the mirror, and this is perhaps true to some extent, but the cargo bay could have held a substantially larger mirror. It is likely that the Hubble’s mirror was modeled after the ones of very similar size which had already been built for the Pentagon. In his book The Hubble Wars, Eric J. Chaisson writes, 

NASA, strapped for cash in the mid-1970’s yet eager to boost its floundering shuttle development program with a science package, developed [a large space telescope]... of three meter diameter -- by piggybacking onto the Pentagon’s array of neat optical products.
Yes, yet another influential player in the development of the space telescope is the Pentagon and its covert operations. Chaisson is pointed on this: “NASA itself, whether it can or wishes to admit it publicly, has always had an association with this shadowy element of society”. For many, the role of the military was frustrating. Much technology which had already been developed by the Pentagon had to be reinvented because of the enforced divide between government and civilian information. Chaisson ominously wrote in 1994 that the military intelligence community had “successfully built and operated orbiting telescopes more cerebral, versatile, and powerful than Hubble”. But there is nothing new here. Chaisson reminds us, “Galileo himself helped make a living by tooling spyglasses for the Florentine city-state”.

The telescope was scheduled to launch in 1986, but that same year, in a more gruesome convergence of science and politics, the Challenger was pressured to launch despite the cold weather so that it could be flying directly over Capitol Hill while Reagan delivered his State of the Union Address, which compromised the fatal o-rings and resulted in catastrophe. What was now called the Hubble was stored for four years, and the solar panels were taken back to Europe. But in April of 1990 it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida in the Discovery, the lightest of the space shuttles. The shuttle mission was a success, the astronauts performed admirably.

But right away there were problems; the astronauts almost had to perform an emergency space-walk because one of the solar panels wouldn’t open. For months, scientists struggled to learn how to control the thing, and for months it whirled around in orbit before people learned how to program the complex technology from Earth. Chaisson described it “ tuning a piano without touching it and while moving at nearly 18,000 miles per hour”. The chief engineer of the orbital verification team Gene Oliver imagined it “ changing a spark plug while driving down the road”. One of the first civilian uses of artificial intelligence, Hubble meandered in high earth orbit for the first few months in perpetual bouts of safe mode, protecting itself from the confused and frequently error prone attempts of the humans on earth to control it. Of the time, division chief and astronomer Rodger Doxsey said that “[n]o one seems to be in charge. A group meets daily and decides by the seat of their pants what to do the next day. There is absolutely no method to their madness!”

And once they learned to point and shoot, the pictures were out of focus. Chaisson laments, “[s]uch is modern science, big science. A microscopic imperfection only a few percent of the width of a human hair can cripple a two billion dollar piece of scientific apparatus”. On June 21st, 1991 it was announced to the public that the main mirror had a spherical aberration. The impaired telescope was four to ten times less sensitive than expected. Lennard Fisk, a NASA administrator testified in congress on the spherical aberration: “It’s perfectly wrong, that is correct, a mistake ground in with great precision”. Fisk remarked on another occasion something to the effect that spherical aberration was the space-science equivalent of the Challenger.

Senator Albert Gore made the same comparison when he said in a hearing, “[t]his is the second time in five years that a major project has encountered serious disruption by an inherent flaw that was apparently built into the project as much as ten years before launch and went undetected by NASA’s quality control procedures”. Even Senator Barbara Mikulski, a long time supporter of the Hubble, accused the whole methodology of the enterprise, saying that it “underestimates cost and overestimates technology”. By 1991, the space telescope had cost two billion dollars, in contrast to the original projection of four hundred million. Shuttle servicing missions routinely cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the next 26 months (remarkably fast for a big science enterprise), a device called the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement was devised. Consisting of 5,300 individual parts, it was a device that used mirrors to correct the spherical aberration; the popular allusion of the time was glasses for the Hubble. John Bahcall, echoing a recurring sentiment about the Hubble project, said that the success of COSTAR was “a question of life or death for NASA”. In 1994, the first servicing mission, throughout a series of space-walks over ten days, installed COSTAR, replaced the solar arrays and four gyroscopes, added four electrical devices and two magnetometers. The servicing mission was an amazing success, a historic feat of problem solving and human dexterity when there was no Superman with x-ray vision to clean the lens.
On January 13th, 1994, the mission was publicly declared successful, and the once blurry vision was resolved, bringing us the amazing images we have all seen, glimpses into the deep fields and swirling clouds of a vast universe of unimagined phenomena. The Hubble had become a success, revolutionizing astronomy and kicking off a new era of space science.

But the rocky road to Hubble’s current place as icon and reification of space science and technology in the popular consciousness leaves us with many unanswered questions. Looking back, Chaisson, who was intimately involved with the project, writes of the initial stages of Hubble that they exhibited a “flagrant lack of thinking, design and application”. The whole project suffered from “...a case of engineering myopia, a clear and steady failure to heed the bigger picture”. About the Space Telescope Science Institute, Chaisson regrets that it was established “...several years after [the telescope’s] hardware had been frozen, its instruments nearly built, its crucial optical system already shaped... too late to influence materially the fundamental design”. 
Many of those involved in the Hubble project became strongly disillusioned with the role of NASA in scientific endeavor. Chaisson remembers that “NASA officials often stressed being part of the ‘Hubble team’, not realizing that the Agency’s version of total management damps innovation while breeding mediocrity”. Gerrit Verschur, a radio astronomer with no conflict of interest, said that “[NASA’s] weakness lies in public relations, unconsciously structured to titillate and perpetuate scientific illiteracy”. Senator Dale Bumpers said before Hubble was launched outside a hearing in Washington that “NASA’s eyes are bigger than its stomach, and it needs its wings clipped”. Chaisson is even more scathing in his critique: “the space agency... has solidified into a bureaucratic morass that rewards mediocrity and self-preservation while damping creativity and innovation”. Chaisson continues to assert that

if the US is to have a viable and vibrant space program, NASA needs to be thoroughly reformed or replaced. (At the very least, its educational programs that should propagate truth must be divorced from its public-affairs activities that spin cheer leading, for the former are clearly linked with the latter.) Indeed, many knowledgeable individuals -- including a surprising number of high ranking NASA administrators -- are privately of the opinion that the space agency may well need to collapse before its successor can be reborn.
But just as in need of a critique as these institutions are the individuals that made them up. In the incredibly stressful weeks surrounding the announcement of spherical aberration, scientists exhibited various perverse qualities. People stormed out of meetings, slammed doors, and there was furious controversy over proprietary data. A guest engineer at the time remarked, “I’ll be damned if you guys don’t need a child psychologist”. One scientist remarked to Chaisson: “We astronomers really can be spherical bastards... a term left over from Edwin Hubble’s day to describe a malcontent from any angle”. In the midst of a committee presentation at one point, Giaconni interrupted, “[s]top! Enough! There is an absolute proliferation of paper generating committees, most of them smoke screens created by NASA management. And they are not helping”. Giacconi is an example to remind us that many scientists exhibited admirable patience and perseverance in the project. But the tensions surrounding the Hubble brought many important questions about scientific inquiry and etiquette to light which were seemingly forgotten the Hubble’s success.

There was a rising controversy over proprietary data rights, which had many scientists covering their computer screens and yelling at camera crews to go away. Lennard Fisk said that “proprietary data rights are killing us... if you’re concerned about proprietary data rights, then you’re worrying about who is stealing deck chairs on the Titanic”. While the Hubble did not sink, it is unfortunate that the debate over the scientific value of proprietary data and other crucial aspects of scientific culture which the Hubble contraversy illuminated were somehow forgiven in the Hubble’s triumph. Chaisson ominously elaborated in 1994 that “[t]his attitude of exclusivity on the part of leading scientists can only contribute to a widening of the celebrated culture gap, and possibly even a head-long slide toward a scienceless society”. Chaisson entreats: “...sharing is as valuable as discovering, teaching as honorable as research”.

While every image and discovery abetted by the Hubble is testament to the capacity of innovative humans to work past their own limitations to achieve amazing feats of scientific and technological innovation, perhaps something overheard at the Goddard Space Center during the first few months of confusion still stays with us: “We don’t own Hubble. The high-strung bird owns us”.

It’s very essential to acknowledge that the success of Hubble does not prove the efficiency or quality of Big Science. In fact, the Hubble was a success in spite of Big Science -- it was only thanks to thousands of hardworking physicists, engineers, astronauts, politicians, astronomers, and independent citizens at every stage of the process that Hubble ever became what it is today. And yet significantly due to the Hubble’s success, the vast machine of infighting bureaucracies and the symbiosis of politics and science has anchored itself in the popular consciousness as the way science is done. In 2006 do we have any indicator to tell us that we are not still mired in a terrain of space science that consistently, in senator Mikulski’s words, underestimates cost and overestimates technology? In the interim between spherical aberration and COSTAR, astronomer Jim Gunn, in an open address to scientists involved everywhere, left questions that are not answered by our Hubble calendars and tee shirts:

We have lost control of our destiny, having handed it to a bureaucratic agency which means well but is unable to handle large projects of its own (cf. the shuttle) and certainly not ours. We were not “screwed over” -- we have been exquisitely vulnerable to precisely this kind of thing happening for years; it is a part of our sorry heritage which began with gentlemen astronomers in their coats and ties at Mt. Wilson, continued with the sorrier example of the national observatories, and has culminated with the first of the Great Observatories, probably the most expensive scientific failure in history... We are a discipline of technical incompetents, happy to let our or NASA’s engineers build our tools to their desires, by and large, not ours. It was an astronomical failure; it was an astronomical satellite, and it does not matter a whit that it was probably some fool at [Perkin-Elmer] that caused it and some entirely expected failure of NASA’s criminally infantile [quality assurance] program that failed to catch it... NASA’s style is killing/may have already killed us, and we will never get another chance to do anything about it, if indeed it is not already too late.
And so now it becomes the task of all of us; whether as citizens or scientists, professionals or amateurs, to question for ourselves the trajectory of Big Science, and to consider our subsequent options in respect to it. A behemoth Moon/Mars initiative hangs over our heads which threatens to subsume all other science funding. On an even deeper level, this extreme industrial methodology of science should make us ask ourselves what science even means for each of us in this day and age. Chaisson writes that “[t]he widespread notion that the scientific method is unbiased and objective, that scientists are and always have been lacking in human emotion in the course of their work, is a farce”. It is the role of those concerned both objectively and emotionally with science today to reverse the current trend towards an elite priesthood of science with serves more to alienate than enlighten. 
The question of reform or revolution in space science will most likely be answered for us. It is unfortunately unlikely that a group of brilliant scientists will commandeer NASA and steer it cleanly between the scylla of industry and the charybdis of politics. With the recent presidential decree of the Moon/Mars initiative, the space science program soars headlong into both. While a failure of this gargantuan initiative would devastate the space science industry, perhaps only a failure of such magnitude could usher in a more sustainable era of scientific enterprise. Conversely, a success of the initiative at best will yield astronomically expensive hubris and perpetuation of Big Science, which fittingly suffocates thousands of fish with the pollution from every single shuttle launch. 
And so not only for unimagined phenomena, but for the meanings and futures of science itself, we remember the words of Edwin Hubble: “The search will continue. The urge is older than history. It is not satisfied and it will not be suppressed”.

The Hubble Wars: Astrophysics meets Astropolitics in the Two-Billion Dollar Struggle over the Hubble Space Telescope, by Eric J. Chaisson. 1994
Selling the Space Telescope: The Interpenetration of Science, Technology, and Politics (Documentary). Narrated by Robert W. Smith. PBS, 1991
Hubble: A New Window to the Universe, By Daniel Fischer and Hilmar Duerbeck. 1996
The Space Telescope by George B. Field, 1989
The Hubble Space Telescope Optical Systems Failure Report, NASA, Washington D.C. November 1990
Wikipedia: article on The Hubble Space Telescope accessed May 7th 2006

1 comment:

funkenstein said...

Great writeup! You hit the best quotes here. I will miss your deep field background, but it's worth it for this post :)