Homage to Hubble

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit on this day in 1990. The HST would not transmit any images for another three and a half years, this time needed for servicing missions to correct a technological near-catastrophe — the edges of the telescope’s mirror out by 1/50th the width of a human hair. But over the past two decades the Hubble has “lifted a curtain from our view of the universe, changing it so profoundly that no human can look at the stars in the same way again.”

The above quotation comes from Robert Zimmerman’s The Universe in a Mirror, which tells the “Saga of the Hubble Telescope and the Visionaries Who Built It.”

Zimmerman describes a fifty-year search for the necessary cash, political will, and practical science, the quest dating from 1946, when the Yale astronomer Lyman Spitzer first proposed the HST idea. Although Spitzer’s concept was not quite out of the blue, says Zimmerman, “you need to understand the context of this proposal to realize how audacious it was”:

In 1946 the 200-inch Hale Telescope on Palomar Mountain in California, soon to become the largest ground-based telescope in the world, was not yet finished. It had taken almost three decades to build…. Moreover, when finished it would weigh a million pounds and be almost seventy feet tall.… Yet here was Lyman Spitzer proposing that the United States not only consider building a telescope as much as three times bigger than the Hale Telescope but also put it in orbit around the earth.

Whatever Spitzer and the other visionaries accomplished would have been impossible without the earlier work of the telescope’s namesake, Edwin Hubble. Marcia Bartusiak’s The Day We Found the Universe describes the paper Hubble delivered at a 1925 conference of astronomers as nothing less than “the culmination of a centuries-long quest to understand the true nature and extent of the cosmos”:

Our celestial home was suddenly humbled, becoming just one of a multitude of galaxies residing in the vast gulfs of space. In one fell swoop, the visible universe was enlarged by an inconceivable factor, eventually trillions of times over. In more familiar terms, it’s as if we had been confined to one square yard of Earth’s surface, only to suddenly realize that there were now vast oceans and continents, cities and villages, mountains and deserts, previously unexplored and unanticipated beyond that single plug of sod.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.