Long View

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit on this day in 1990. Over its decades in operation, the Hubble has gradually “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,” says Robert Zimmerman in The Universe in a Mirror: The Saga of the Hubble Telescope and the Visionaries Who Built It.

Zimmerman’s account of the HST describes a half-century search for the necessary cash, political will, and practical science, the quest dating from 1946, when the Yale astronomer Lyman Spitzer first proposed the 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.

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.