Cheeseburgers and Techno-Turkeys: Hubble’s Troubled Childhood

An odyssey of exploration began on 25 April 1990, when Steve Hawley gingerly pulled Discovery's robot arm away from the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA

More than two decades ago, this very week, one of the most important missions in the annals of scientific discovery got underway with the launch of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. This enormous, $1.5 billion observatory, with its five instruments and finely ground mirrors, promised to revolutionise astronomy: it would peer deeper into the cosmos than ever before, unhindered by the distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere. In time, it would examine ‘nurseries’ of young stars and ‘graveyards’ of ancient ones, would study galaxies in unprecedented depth, would watch as a comet smashed into Jupiter, would trace violent storms on Uranus and Neptune and would create maps of far-off Pluto, whose resolution will remain unmatched until the New Horizons probe reaches the tiny world in 2015. To this very day, Hubble remains priceless, its images having long since become art, such is their majestic beauty. “It’s Americana,” astronaut Rick Linnehan once said of the telescope, “like cheeseburgers or Clint Eastwood. It just pervades everything.” Yet Hubble’s success would begin with a tortured childhood which made it the butt of cruel humour and an object of cynical criticism from NASA’s political opponents. In the first few months of its orbital life, Hubble was in trouble.

None of this could have been further from anyone’s mind on 10 April 1990, as controllers counted down towards the launch of the telescope on STS-31. Aboard Space Shuttle Discovery were five astronauts – Loren Shriver, Bruce McCandless, Steve Hawley, Kathy Sullivan and the man who would one day become NASA’s first African-American Administrator, Charlie Bolden – who had been tasked with the enormous responsibility of getting this gigantic icon of astronomy into the highest orbit ever attained by the Shuttle. However, the 10th was not to be their day. The countdown clock stopped at T-4 minutes, when abnormal pressures and turbine speeds were detected in one of Discovery’s Auxiliary Power Units. Two weeks later, on the 24th, they were back for another try. This time, the clock halted at T-31 seconds, just before the on-board computers assumed primary control, due to glitch with a liquid oxygen fill and drain valve. When this had been rectified, STS-31 roared into space. “Our window on the Universe!” crowed the launch announcer as Discovery speared towards a 600 km orbit, atop a pillar of golden flame.

Within hours, the Shuttle’s payload bay doors were open, revealing the monster telescope in all its splendour. Thirteen metres in length, glistening with shiny insulation and weighing in at an impressive 11,000 kg, Hubble filled the bay and left the astronauts awestruck. In fact, its aluminium coating was so reflective that it blazed brightly in the harsh, unfiltered sunlight…so brightly that Steve Hawley would later recommend that future servicing missions should rendezvous with the telescope during orbital darkness, to avoid momentarily blinding the astronauts or their cameras.

Almost filling Discovery's payload bay - as well as the camera field of view - the Hubble Space Telescope is lifted to its pre-deployment position on 25 April 1990. Photo Credit: NASA

Deployment occurred on the second day of the mission, 25 April, when Hawley gingerly grappled the massive payload and positioned it above the bay, with its large aperture door facing forward. Its two high-gain antennas were released, springing ‘downward’ and ‘outward’, and the next step was to open British Aerospace’s solar arrays, which would unfurl like kitchen roller blinds. The first array came out perfectly and Shriver reflected that it was incredible to behold. The second array was more problematic. It began to unroll for a few centimetres, then abruptly stopped. Everyone’s heart skipped a beat. Time was of the essence. After cutting umbilical power to the telescope, the astronauts had less than two hours on internal batteries to get the arrays open and enable Hubble to draw its own electricity. If that did not happen, the batteries would die…and so would the telescope. The worry went up in notches with the realisation that Hubble might be in severe difficulty. An EVA repair seemed the only solution. Having reduced Discovery’s cabin pressure the previous night, McCandless and Sullivan were already downstairs, clad in their space suits, in the airlock, with tools, ready to go outside.

McCandless was convinced that he knew the source of the problem: a glitch with a tension monitoring module. This was a unit of software to detect any excessive strain on the array and prevent it from tearing or binding. It would stop the array-deployment process and the spacewalkers would then have to fix it manually. To give them more time, they had partially completed their pre-EVA procedures before Hubble was grappled. “What’s left,” said Sullivan, “is to button up the suit, breathe 40 minutes of pure oxygen, close the hatch, depress and get outside.”

It was a double-edged sword, for despite having a spacewalk, it also meant that Sullivan’s other task of photographing the deployment would be missed. Before launch, she had resolved to literally “wallpaper the telescope with photos”…in fact, she wanted a cover shot on Aviation Week. Now, after working for five years on Hubble, she was locked up in the airlock and might not even see the instant of its release. With only minutes remaining before she and McCandless would have been directed to fully depressurise the airlock, Mission Control told them that the problem was an erroneous software indication…from the tension monitoring module. An engineer requested permission to command the module to ‘No Op’ (‘No Operation’, effectively taking it ‘out of the loop’) and was certain that this would enable the stubborn second array to unfurl. Flight Director Bill Reeves concurred and fellow astronaut Story Musgrave radioed up the news: Hawley was to orient Hubble in a ready-to-deploy attitude and if the attempt to ‘No Op’ worked, the array would probably start unfurling immediately and they would have to release the telescope as quickly as possible. It worked. Charlie Bolden was astounded, but McCandless offered a wizened grin. He had worked on Hubble for so long that he knew, instinctively, what had caused the problem.

Seven weeks before launch, in early March 1990, Kathy Sullivan backs out of the airlock to perform a simulated repair of the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA

Steve Hawley’s primary concern during the deployment, aside from the array, was the very remote chance that Discovery’s robot arm might fail. The joints of the arm were intentionally limited in terms of their speed, thereby offering him some margin to respond to contingencies, and that meant that the motion he could command was restricted. As he lifted Hubble, it ‘wobbled’ – a lot more than the simulator had taught him that it should – and not until after landing did he realise that the signal ‘noise’ in the joints contributed to random imparted motions. In his post-mission debriefings, he recommended that future simulations should take joint noise into account…a recommendation which would prove hugely beneficial for Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier, who would grapple Hubble on the first servicing mission and for Hawley himself, who would fly the second.

Charlie Bolden was not immune to the irony that the crew had actually practiced a solar array deployment failure during their last integrated simulation, shortly before launch. In that instance, McCandless and Sullivan had manually wound out the array, although they knew that doing such an action for real had the potential to severely damage the telescope. “Once you did that,” Bolden said, “it took it out of its automatic mode and it would no longer be able to take care of itself…sort of like taking a baby from the womb, putting it on a respirator and putting it in a position where the rest of its life it would need something. That was what that would have meant for Hubble…until you send another crew up and put on another set of solar arrays and reset the clock.”

Disappointment at being unable to perform an EVA was stretched a little further when McCandless and Sullivan were unable to see the moment of deployment. Bolden certainly felt for them, still cooped up in the airlock. “So we deploy Hubble, coming off the Pacific Ocean, across the west coast of South America,” he told the NASA oral historian, “and it’s just the most beautiful thing you can imagine. It comes off the end of the arm and down. We’re looking at the Andes Mountains and it goes right across the coast between Bolivia and Venezuela.” Shortly afterwards, he and Shriver pulsed Discovery’s thrusters, twice, to raise their orbit slightly, causing them to fall steadily ‘behind’ the telescope. As Hubble drifted serenely away, the three men on the flight deck gaped at what they were seeing. Then, all of a sudden, and in unison, they all barked: “Camera! Somebody get a camera!”

Stunning view of the curvature of Earth from STS-31. Hubble's large cross-sectional size required the Shuttle to deliver the telescope into one of the highest orbits ever achieved by astronauts. Photo Credit: NASA

Bolden helped to save the day in terms of the photography. An IMAX large-format camera was already filming the deployment from the rear of the payload bay and Bolden also acquired some spectacular footage from the cabin, with the hand-held IMAX. Having sealed McCandless and Sullivan in the airlock, he shot a length of film as he floated upstairs to the flight deck, focusing firstly on Shriver at the orbiter’s controls, then on Hawley at the robot arm’s controls, and then through the windows to reveal Hubble in all its magnificence. It was not like a ‘normal’ camera, where it was possible to see what was going through the lens; instead, Bolden had nothing to gauge whether he was doing the right thing. After the flight, his biggest surprise was not just that the camera worked, but that it also stayed in focus. Later, IMAX would include Bolden’s imagery as part of its Blue Planet and Destiny in Space documentaries.

Four days later, on 29 April 1990, Shriver and Bolden brought Discovery onto the concrete runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert, capping a mission which promised to open a new set of eyes on the Universe. In the first few weeks, Hubble’s early problems seemed benign: a few communications glitches, drifting star trackers and snagged coaxial cables were part and parcel in the process of wringing out a new spacecraft. More serious concerns arose when temperature changes bent materials in the solar arrays’ booms, the effect of which was magnified by the orientation mechanism in such a way that it physically ‘bounced’ the whole telescope. The result was a ‘jittering’ in Hubble’s images and, since the booms only stabilised in the final few minutes of orbital daylight, the pointing system was only able to meet its design specifications for a fraction of each orbit. NASA engineers worked with their counterparts at Lockheed to change the control program in Hubble’s computer and successfully counteracted the vibrations. On 21 May, the telescope returned its first images of a double star in the Carina system and these were lauded as being much clearer than were achievable with ground-based instruments.

Four weeks later, calamity befell the mission: on 24 June Hubble failed a focusing test. Its secondary mirror had been adjusted to focus the incoming light from a celestial source, but a fuzzy ring – like a halo – encircled even its best images, creating a blur. Additional tests revealed that the telescope was suffering from a condition known as a ‘spherical aberration’ in its primary mirror. In essence, the manufacturer, Perkin-Elmer, had ground it to the wrong specification, removing too much glass and polishing it too flat…by a mere fiftieth of the width of a human hair. The consequence was that Hubble was unable to acquire sharp images. With mounting horror, NASA realised that its attempts to sell its scientific showpiece on the basis of its ability to see further into the cosmos than ever before, with unprecedented clarity, now became increasingly hollow. The promised white knight of astronomy was turning instead into a white elephant.

Their mission accomplished, the crew of STS-31 depart Discovery on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California on 29 April 1990. Photo Credit: NASA

Even Hubble’s chief scientist, Ed Weiler, admitted that its capabilities were comparable only to “a very good ground telescope on a very good night”. The politicians were quick to vent their fury. Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, exploded that Hubble was “a techno-turkey” and wasted taxpayers’ money. Meanwhile, Senator Al Gore – then a Democrat for Tennessee and later Vice President during the Clinton administration – observed that, for the second time in less than half a decade, NASA’s quality control shortcomings had been exposed. The press had a field day. Particular venom was levelled at the fact that NASA had accepted Perkin-Elmer’s $64.2 million bid to build the mirror and rejected a more expensive, though more thorough, $99.8 million proposal from Eastman Kodak and defence contractor Itek. On 28 July, the New York Times reported that Kodak-Itek’s bid would have subjected the mirror to two independent checks of its grinding and polishing accuracy. Almost certainly, this would have caught the error before launch.

NASA responded that, with 20-20 hindsight, it would have cost $100 million to incorporate additional tests and independent checks of the telescope optics into the Perkin-Elmer contract, but the effect upon the general public was the same. The space agency was rendered a laughing-stock on late-night TV talk shows. David Letterman compiled a pejorative list of Top Ten Hubble Excuses, whilst others criticised NASA for its mismanagement of both the Hubble development and the Solid Rocket Boosters which doomed Challenger. Several space policy analysts, including John Logsdon, noted that attitudes had changed from the 1960s, in which problems were anticipated and incorporated into planning, to the late 1970s and 1980s when little effort was made to prepare for unforeseen obstacles.

In early July 1990, NASA established an investigating committee, chaired by Lew Allen, the head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His report – published the following November  – harshly criticised the incorrect assembly of the ‘reflective null corrector’, an optical device used to determine the figure of Hubble’s mirror. The location of a lens in the device was improperly measured and the null corrector guided the polisher to shape a perfectly smooth mirror…with the wrong curvature. Analysis revealed that the curvature flaw in the primary mirror exactly matched the flaw in the null corrector. A second null corrector, made only with lenses, was also built to measure the vertex radius of the finished mirror. It, too, clearly identified an error in the primary mirror. However, neither warning sign was heeded and Allen’s report noted that “both indicators of error were discounted at the time as being themselves flawed”. During the fabrication process, technicians simply assumed the perfection of the mirror and of the reflective null corrector and rejected information from other independent tests, convincing themselves that no problems existed.

Twelve light-years from Earth, the M82 galaxy - nicknamed 'The Cigar Galaxy' - blazes brightly in this Hubble image. Photo Credit: NASA/Space Telescope Science Institute

The errors went back to 1981-82, when Perkin-Elmer and NASA were both distracted by cost and schedule difficulties. Allen’s report particularly condemned Perkin-Elmer’s quality control and communications failures, as well as NASA’s own failure to correct them. In orbit, the spherical aberration was particularly obvious in its effect on Hubble’s wide-field planetary camera and faint object camera, both of which suffered in terms of their spatial resolution and their ability to acquire images of distant sources. Having said this, the aberration was well characterised and stable and, over time, enabled astronomers to optimise the results obtained by Hubble with sophisticated techniques, such as ‘deconvolution’, whereby software algorithms and image processing methods removed many of the blurring effects of optical distortion. Spectroscopy was less severely affected, because the instruments required less focused light and by increasing the exposure times it became possible to gather valuable images. However, the jittering of the solar arrays left Hubble’s high-speed photometer virtually useless. Nevertheless, by the end of 1991, the telescope had made almost 2,000 quality observations of hundreds of astronomical objects, including storms on Saturn and images of Pluto’s moon, Charon.

At the start of the following year, 1992, a quarter of all the papers presented before the American Astronomical Society drew on Hubble data. A repair was critical in order to restore the telescope to its pre-flight billing and, although the primary mirror could not be replaced, a new device – the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR) – was built to restore its vision. COSTAR was manifested onto the first Shuttle servicing mission to Hubble. For the STS-31 astronauts, there would be involvement in these efforts, both directly and peripherally. Kathy Sullivan had already been assigned to another mission and Steve Hawley had gone to work for NASA’s Ames Research Center, so they watched from afar, but Bruce McCandless dug in with some early development of COSTAR and Charlie Bolden, for a time, hoped to command the repair mission. “Deep down,” he said later, “I was kind of keeping my fingers crossed that that would be my next mission.”

Eventually, that command went to another astronaut and the spectacular repair of Hubble, in December 1993, proved to be one of NASA’s most defining moments. Many senior administrators had little faith that the repair would work, but its success contributed greatly to a changing attitude towards the Shuttle. As for Hubble itself, hardly anyone remembers the circumstances surrounding the spherical aberration today; Wikipedia, for one, gushes in far more detail about its astounding scientific discoveries, its contributions to physics and astronomy and cosmology and its importance to humanity as a species. The mirror problem is now little more than a footnote in history…and it should be, for Hubble has overcome the torment of its early childhood and performed grandly.

When the crew of the final Shuttle servicing mission departed the telescope in May 2009, they left an observatory far more powerful and considerably more capable than even the magnificent showpiece which STS-31 had launched, almost two decades earlier. In the words of John Grunsfeld, who visited the telescope in space more times than any other human being, the honour and the privilege of being involved with such an icon made it worthy of the risk to his own life. Doubtless the other astronauts associated with Hubble feel the same way. “Hubble is worth risking my life,” he once said. “It’s that important. It’s teaching us so much about our world, the Universe, who we are and our place in the cosmos.”

And today, in 2012, after 22 years, Hubble remains important and its teaching goes on.

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