Space Telescopes

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The idea of a space-based telescope dates back to a proposal by R. S. Richardson in a 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, but Richardson thought the moon would be a suitable venue. The U.S. proposal to put a telescope in orbit around the earth was made by Lyman Spitzer in "Astronomical Advantages of an Extra-Terrestrial Observatory," a paper written for a project for the Rand Corporation in 1946. In 1958, after a call for proposals by the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Space Sciences Working Group began developing proposals for orbiting astronomical observatories. The idea of an orbiting observatory received support at the highest government levels on the basis of arguments for national prestige, which was in need of shoring up after the launch of Sputnik I in 1956 by the Soviet Union.

Project Development

In 1960 and 1961 NASA initiated the process that eventually led to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). It issued several calls for proposals for launch vehicles and astronomical hardware. By separating the two issues NASA created the grounds for serious planning problems because the limitations of the launch vehicle would have serious implications for the size and design of the observatory. By not insisting on coordinating the two from the start, NASA was, perhaps unknowingly, preparing the ground for later arguments about the constitution of the observatory.

In 1969 after debates among a variety of interest groups, the National Academy of Sciences clearly backed the proposal for a space-based telescope. NASA soon bought into the idea. However, NASA always has been and continues to be a management enterprise of considerable complexity with a myriad of problems that lead to difficulties in making decisions. Much decision making at NASA is influenced strongly by politics. The many and often competing interests NASA managers felt they had to satisfy ranged from internally competing science groups to contractors, politicians, public interest groups, regional NASA facilities, and national priorities, along with international considerations. In addition, there was always competition from other NASA projects. Funds were limited, and the demands were many. The space telescope, as was the case with many other projects, stalled.

Among other activities under way at NASA at the time when the space telescope was being debated was the planning of a space shuttle program, which was approved in 1972. To restart the stalled planning for the space-based telescope, NASA proposed that the launch vehicle for the telescope be the shuttle. That proposal had serious design implications for the telescope, which would have to fit into the baggage bay of the shuttle.

The Large Orbiting Observatory project was beset by arguments that delayed its completion. There were arguments over where the central control would be: The Goddard Space Flight Center at Beltsville, Maryland, or The Marshall Space Flight Center at Hunbtsville, Alabama.. There were arguments over who would have authority over what; what kinds of instruments should be built; how much money was available; which contractor would build the instruments; how much existing technology, such as military spy satellite technology, could be appropriated; and eventually, who would be blamed for the big mistake of the spherical aberration of the primary mirror and how it would be fixed.

The Large Orbiting Observatory, by now called the HST, was completed in 1986, shortly before the Challenger disaster. The grounding of the shuttle program forced a four-year delay in launching the HST. When the HST finally orbited in 1990, it was discovered immediately that its primary mirror had a spherical aberration: The images it sent to earth were blurry. After a number of investigations, including congressional hearings, it was concluded that the mistake was due to a failure of both the engineering team at the contractor for the mirror, Perkin-Elmer, and its management. Perkin-Elmer agreed to repay the government $25 million.

The problems with the Hubble eventually were fixed, and the HST has been instrumental in revolutionizing scientists' conception of the universe. It allowed astronomers to look deeper into space than ever before, revealing features of the universe that confirmed some theories and made others doubtful.


When one reflects on the history of the HST, the variety of factors that played a role in its development, and its impact on astronomical understanding, several themes emerge. First, the building of a large and expensive scientific instrument is not a simple process. Furthermore, instruments with the size and complexity of the HST require such vast resources that only a national government or another entity capable of putting together a conglomerate of considerable size can undertake a project of such magnitude. Second, in a world of limited resources the commitment to undertake one project of that size means that other projects will suffer. Thus, not only was there considerable tension between advocates of earth-based telescopes and advocates of space-based ones, directing funds toward the HST meant that less money was available for new and larger earth-based telescopes. Third, most of the conflicts involving the HST were clashes of values that often were multidimensional.

The initial battle over launching a large space telescope as opposed to several smaller, more specialized telescopes was not just an argument about whether the project was feasible. In a 1983 symposium sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution the physicist Freeman Dyson (b. 1923) argued against the idea of doing science with instruments with the size and scale of the HST and for a smaller, diversified kind of science employing specialized, smaller, and much cheaper instruments. Dyson was arguing against big science, which had become a distinctive characteristic of the U.S. physics community.

Dyson may have had a point. The U.S. physics community had continued to rely on large instrument projects to a risky extent. The lesson was learned the hard way when the Super-Conducting Super Collider (SSC) project was canceled fifteen years after it had been proposed and billions of dollars had been spent. The physics community reacted as if it had received an amputation: It had no visible capacity to do microphysics at the cutting edge.

This episode shows the flaw inherent in insisting on a hegemony in a science. The lesson to be learned from the Hubble, however, actually goes in the other direction. The turn to big science/technology need not limit the scientists to one large project; it also can generate small science projects in its wake. Smaller and less expensive types of telescopes, such as an infrared telescope, are being placed in orbit to discover what the Hubble could not reveal. What was missing from the thinking about the SSC were ideas about what would follow from it by way of subsidiary projects such as smaller more specialized experimental devices.

The HST illustrates other value clashes as well. Many people argue against this kind of project while people are suffering from hunger, disease, and lack of education. Big science/technology, it is claimed, is a luxury at a time when many millions are living in misery. This is a hard argument to refute, and it is not clear that one should try. It is important to be reminded of the human cost of science and technology. At the same time it is possible also to consider another human dimension to big science/technology that although it does not refute the argument from human physical need speaks to a different form of human need.

In the Middle Ages there was much misery. In Europe most of the population lived in squalor, disease was rampant, and ignorance was the norm. However, despite those circumstances, people in that era gave of their time, labor, and meager belongings to build some of humankind's most magnificent edifices: Gothic cathedrals. The cathedrals of Europe present a statement of humanity's commitment to seek more than it can find on earth. Projects such as the HST may be considered a continuation of that quest.


SEE ALSO National Aeronautics and Space Administration;Space Exploration.


Chaisson, Eric J. (1998). The Hubble Wars. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. A personal account of some of the internal battles in the Hubble saga.

Needell, Allan A., ed. (1983). The First 25 Years in Space: A Symposium. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Pitt, Joseph C. (2000). Thinking about Technology. New York: Seven Bridges Press. Formulates the author's philosophical position behind the observations at the end of this article concerning value conflicts.

Smith, Robert W. (1989). The Space Telescope. New York: Cambridge University Press. The most detailed and definitive history of the Hubble project.

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Space Telescopes

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