A MIRROR TO THE FUTURE
FEBRUARY 11, 1997
After an uncertain beginning, the Hubble Space Telescope has been considered a scientific success. With the space-based telescope, scientists have been able to see galaxies and black holes never before visible. NASA is currently attempting to upgrade the telescope to make it even more sensitive. Paul Solman discusses the Hubble program with its chief scientist, Ed Weiler.
PAUL SOLMAN: Seven years ago the space shuttle Discovery carted the telescope to outer space. The $2 billion telescope was created to help scientists see 10 times further into the universe than its earthbound counterparts. But soon after the Discovery released the instrument, some 380 miles above the earth's surface, NASA scientists learned there was a defect in the seven-foot primary mirror causing pictures from Hubble to be out of focus.
A RealAudio version of of this segment is available.
December 4, 1996:
Jeffrey Kaye reports on NASA's planned missions to Mars.
November 29, 1996:
Tom Bearden reports on Dan Goldin, NASA's administrator, and the controversial he has implemented.
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SPOKESMAN: The liftoff of the space shuttle Endeavour on an ambitious mission to service the Hubble space telescope.
PAUL SOLMAN: In 1993, the space shuttle Endeavour sped to the Hubble in a last ditch effort to repair the mirror. Its dramatic mission captured the attention of the nation as astronauts completed a total of five space walks and corrected the problem. Since then, the Hubble has produced unprecedented pictures leading to startling discoveries from the birth conditions of stars to billions of new galaxies.
Now NASA's attempting to upgrade the Hubble to make it see a lot more. Joining us from Houston is Ed Weiler, chief scientist for the Hubble telescope. Mr. Weiler, thanks for being with us. Now, I thought the Hubble was no longer broke. So why fix it?
ED WEILER, NASA: We're going to make it better. It's currently the best telescope in the world, and we're going to make it even better with new technology. As you said earlier, we launched it in 1990, but the instruments that actually analyze the light from that mirror were built with 1970's technology. And we've come a long way since then. So the Hubble is going to even be better after this mission.
PAUL SOLMAN: Well, what are 70's instruments doing in something that was launched in 1990?
ED WEILER: Well, you've got to remember, the Hubble was started in 1979, and the instruments were selected in the mid 70's, so you have to sort of lock up your technology at that point. We were supposed to launch in '83, and for various reasons we didn't get to launch until 1990.
PAUL SOLMAN: So what are the astronauts actually going to be doing up there?
ED WEILER: Well, I think it'll be a pretty exciting mission for the Americans to watch, but the only problem is most of it happens in the middle of the night. There'll be six--I'm sorry--four space walks of about six hours each. The first one, I think, is the night of Valentine's, the morning of the 15th. And that'll be the most important one for we scientists because we're going to be replacing two of those 1970 instruments with two of these 1990's instruments.
PAUL SOLMAN: For what purpose?
ED WEILER: To enhance the science. One of the instruments is an infrared instrument, and that will open up a new window for Hubble for the first time, extending our vision beyond what the human eye can see into the infrared. Why is that important? Well, if you want to look even further back in time, further back in space than the current Hubble can look the objects are going to be moving away from us even faster, and that's going to shift the light because of the red shift or Doppler shift into the infrared. So this will really enable us to look even further back in time at even younger objects.
PAUL SOLMAN: How can you look further back in time, what do you mean?
ED WEILER: Well, light takes time to travel from one place to another place. For instance, if you remember the moon walks, the astronaut's voice would take about two seconds to get from the Moon to here. So you weren't hearing the astronauts as they were at this instant. You were hearing them as they were two seconds younger. The same is true with light, just like radio waves. The farther something is away from you, the longer it takes the light to get here, thus, you're seeing fossil light, light that left there a long time ago.
PAUL SOLMAN: What are the risks this time around for the astronauts, I mean, compared to say the last fix, the Hubble mission?
ED WEILER: The last mission was certainly one of the most ambitious, if not “the” most ambitious of all shuttle missions. There were five space walks in that, and really the future of the Hubble was riding on that mission to see if we could really fix it. This mission we have four space walks, and we're really going up there to maintain the engineering and to improve the science. The risks are the same. You can't list all the risk, but I'm not too worried. I don't think the team is worried because the team has taken this mission just as seriously as we took the last mission. We've had just as many practices and simulations, and the spirit of the team, the headquarters people, the Johnson people, the Marshall people, the KSC people, has just been great. It's been as high as it was for the last mission.
PAUL SOLMAN: What's the worst thing that could happen? As a journalist I have to ask you that.
ED WEILER: I don't--I get that question a lot, and I don't like to speculate on it because if you asked that question before the 1990 launch and asked us each to list the ten things we worry about the most, I don't think any of us would have anticipated a problem with a mirror. So the ones you worry about the most are the ones you don't even think about but we've got lots of contingency plans, and I think we're as well prepared as we can be.
PAUL SOLMAN: I read a headline in the Washington Post and I'll quote it--it says, "A former flop, Hubble reaches superstardom." I remember when they called it a "techno turkey," "“trouble rhymes with Hubble." What feats have propelled the telescope from failure to superstar?
ED WEILER: I think in one sense the fact that we have so many problems with it and then overcame them, to me it was the great American comeback story. Hubble was the butt of jokes on nightly comedy shows. It's been in comedy movies.
PAUL SOLMAN: Naked Gun two and a half.
ED WEILER: Exactly.
PAUL SOLMAN: With the Hindenburg and the Titanic.
ED WEILER: And I remember one cartoon back in those days that showed Mr. Magoo and said the real inventor of the Hubble space telescope. And I measure our success in a way by cartoons in one sense. The cartoon that I think is on everybody's wall in the Hubble program now is a cartoon that came out about a year ago that showed a dad and his little son in a telescope shop buying a telescope and the dad was pointing at this very nice two, three hundred dollar telescope. The little boy had tears in his eyes and said, "Daddy, can't I have a Hubble?"
PAUL SOLMAN: What do you expect to find now? I mean, I know you can't know, but what are you hoping to find?
ED WEILER: Well, with the Hubble, the current instruments on the Hubble, we've been able to look back in time back to about one billion years after the big bang. There was this big bang, and then the cloud of hydrogen was expanding. And somehow this uniform cloud of hydrogen formed into the beautiful galaxies that we see today. Galaxies contain the stars and planets that we, you know, live around--live on. We'd like to know how it all started. That's been a question that's been around for a long time. Hubble is taking us back to about a billion years from the big bang. With this new infrared instrument, we'll be able to get back perhaps 500 million to 400 million. An analogy is that if you're studying humans as they age, we might be seeing in Hubble today the grade schoolers. With this new infrared instrument we hope to see the toddlers and perhaps even the infants.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now, how much is this costing?
ED WEILER: The instrumentation for this mission is around $350 million, spread out over the last three or four years.
PAUL SOLMAN: And this mission itself?
ED WEILER: The mission, if you count the shuttle launches, around seven or eight hundred million.
PAUL SOLMAN: And the telescope, itself, cost a couple of billion?
ED WEILER: A couple of billion. The way I like to put it is it cost over the cost of 1979 to today it cost every American about 2 cents per week.
PAUL SOLMAN: But I read that NASA's Daniel Goldin says investments like the Hubble are no longer acceptable. Why did he say that?
ED WEILER: I think because Hubble was built in the old NASA, and that is Hubble was built to be built like a ground-based telescope. And--excuse me--my--
PAUL SOLMAN: Can you still hear me?
ED WEILER: Yes. I can still hear you.
PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. Well, you go ahead.
ED WEILER: I'll just hold my finger--
PAUL SOLMAN: That'll be fine.
ED WEILER: The Hubble was built with 1970's technology, and it was delayed and delayed and delayed, and it took 10 years to complete a mission of building the telescope. It should have taken three years. That's not the way to do something cheaply. In today's NASA we're really trying to speed up the development of things and take advantage of technology today. Hubble was probably started before all the technology was ready, and that was a mistake. Today we try to put a lot of up-front emphasis on the technology to get ready for these missions and then build them as fast as we can, two, three, four years from start to finish.
PAUL SOLMAN: Well, one last question. Given all the crying needs of American society, do you think the Hubble is worth it? I guess you must. Why is it worth it?
ED WEILER: I could give you all the scientific reasons, but I'll give you my own direct experience. Anybody who doesn't think Hubble is worth it should take a bunch of Hubble pictures of black holes or galaxies or comets colliding with planets, go into a second or third grade class and show those slides and explain 'em to the kids, and see the reaction you get. If Hubble can excite some kids to get interested in science and math again today, then it's worth every penny because without kids getting back into science and math like my generation did when we saw the Apollos landing on the Moon, we're going to be in trouble in twenty or thirty years.
PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. Well, Mr. Weiler, thanks very much.
ED WEILER: You're welcome.
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