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Commentary: Long live Hubble

By Miles O'Brien
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(CNN) -- The "Comeback Kid" of astronomy has dodged yet another bullet. Come May of 2008, a crew of seven astronauts will strap themselves into the space shuttle Discovery and carry the fire into orbit for a fifth and final repair and refurbishment mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

The cost of the mission: $900 million.

If all goes well, it will be orbiting the Earth, taking pictures of the edge of the universe, until 2013.

Imagine that. What a long, strange trip it has been.

Launched in 1990, carrying a host of scientific instruments and the burden of huge advance hype, Hubble quickly turned out to be a colossal dud.

The main mirror was not ground to the proper shape. The edges were just 2 micrometers flatter than they should have been. This is less than the width of a human hair, but this is a business that is unforgiving of imprecision. Hubble was myopic, and it seemed like a terminal diagnosis.

Suddenly Hubble was a national disgrace -- a laughingstock.

I remember well a hysterical scene in the "Naked Gun 2 1/2." The setting: the Blue Note Cafe -- Lt. Frank Drebin there to drown his sorrows after getting fired. On the wall: a rogue's gallery of epic disasters: a partially sunk Titanic, the Hindenburg, an Edsel convertible, Michael Dukakis -- and the Hubble. That was 1991.

Two years later all that changed when the first crew to service Hubble arrived to fit the instrument with what amounts to the world's most expensive, sophisticated contact lens.

The mission was high stakes on several levels. Not only was the $1.5 billion Hubble on the line, but so too was NASA's plans to build the space station. If the unprecedented spacewalks did not pan out, the space agency would have had a hard time convincing Congress that it would be able to do the hard space work necessary to assemble the the station.

"NASA's future in many ways was on the line," said Jeff Hoffman, one of the spacewalkers on that mission.

"If we had failed it's very likely we would not have been able to go ahead and build the space station. I don't know what the future of human space flight at NASA would have been."

The mission was a stunning success. Hoffman and his spacewalking sidekick Story Musgrave were even able to wrestle Hubble's balky doors shut by doing some fast thinking and some tool improvising. Suddenly the doors opened to a whole new world of discovery.

Because Hubble flies more than 300 miles above us, it does not have to deal with the blurriness created by our atmosphere (sort of like the difference between looking up at the sky underwater -- and above the surface).

It also can capture parts of the light spectrum that do not pass through our atmosphere (like ultraviolet and infrared). And it lives in a very, very dark place (harder and harder to find that here on Earth).

From its perch, Hubble got a bead on the age of the universe, offered the first scientific proof of the existence of black holes, recorded the very birth of planets, determined the universe is not only expanding, but accelerating, captured images of other solar systems, took amazing pictures of the planets in own solar system and even caught pictures of the fragmented Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet as it crashed into Jupiter in 1994.

In all, scientists have published more than 6,000 papers based on Hubble data. It is clearly the most significant telescope since its invention by Galileo in 1608.

"There have been many telescopes in the history of human kind," said longtime Hubble astronomer Mario Livio, "but few have had such an impact."

Livio has worked on Hubble since the beginning, and was crestfallen when former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe pulled the plug on the last repair mission nearly three years ago.

With two new key instruments now slated for installation on Hubble, and a host of other upgrades to batteries, gyroscopes and the like, the telescope should last at least until 2013. Livio predicts it will be 100 times more sensitive capturing ultraviolet light. Who knows what discoveries may lay ahead?

But 16 years after it first arrived in space, Hubble has crossed the boundary between science and popular culture. You don't have to be an astronomer to look at that famous image of the Eagle Nebula and realize you are seeing something extraordinary. Hubble images have inspired us all on many levels.

Livio equates Hubble to Einstein, whose discoveries "went over the boundaries between science and culture."

"Hubble," he says, "has actually made science visible to everybody all across the globe."

By the time all is said and done, Hubble will have cost taxpayers about $10 billion. No small change, to be sure, but about what we are paying for the Iraq war -- every month.

Long live Hubble. And long live the astronauts who will risk it all to keep it running -- expanding our world.


The Hubble Space Telescope, in a photo from 2002, is set to have its life extended, thanks to a repair mission in 2008.



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