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What the Hubble Space Telescope’s Success Says About the Fight to Stop Coronavirus

The Eagle Nebula. Hubble Space Telescope. NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Thirty years ago, on April 24, 1990, NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. We’ve now had entire generations grow up and come of age who don’t know a world without the Hubble. Hubble has revealed the universe to us year after year in some of the most iconic and important space images ever captured, from the Eagle Nebula’s “pillars of creation” to the spectacular crash of a comet into Jupiter to capturing the dim light of the farthest galaxies we have seen to date. Hubble is an incredible feat of daring, ingenuity and persistence. But for many reasons, Hubble may never have happened.

A Goal Decades in the Making

Hubble was never inevitable. Putting a very large, complex, and delicate machine that had no military purpose into space for a long-duration mission had not been done when astronomer Dr. Lyman Spitzer first contemplated it in the 1940s. In fact, humans had not even been to space at all. Spitzer and other astronomers began to envision a space telescope before Sputnik, the tiny Soviet satellite that ushered in the space age in 1957.

They had numerous obstacles to overcome. Thousands of them. Engineers had to design and build launch vehicles — rockets — powerful enough to put large, very expensive objects and humans needed to deploy them into low earth orbit. The unnamed telescope project was one of many projects under consideration and it was one major engineering challenge after another, across several decades. Optics, materials science, electronics, miniaturization, you name it and it posed a challenge to the world’s best engineers. And it would be incredibly expensive, making it a financial challenge too.

But the scientists got to work. Through the years of early human spaceflight, when our rockets could put one, then two, then just three humans into orbit for very short missions, and then we put men on the moon, scientists planned for the day our capabilities would catch up to their dreams. They built a case for putting a telescope into space. They determined what the telescope would do. They specified how it would work and what it would be made of. And they kept going, despite no guarantee that their mission would ever launch, across the 1950s, to the 1990s when Hubble launched. The vast majority of projects proposed to the space agency are never built.

Overcoming Tragedy and Crushing Setbacks

NASA’s space shuttle program represented both an incredible feat of engineering and a leap forward in space exploration. The world’s first reusable spacecraft fleet was designed to make spaceflight routine and increase what we could do while in space. We would have humans going to and from space all the time. But the Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986, could have ended the shuttle program, which Hubble would need to get to space. The explosion killed all hands on board, including Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher to go to space. The shocking tragedy, witnessed by millions live on TV that day, set back the human spaceflight effort for several years while its cause could be investigated and prevented in the future, pushing several major projects, including the Hubble, back in its wake.

But years after Hubble was supposed to be launched, it did go to orbit aboard the space shuttle Discovery. It was supposed to explore for about 10 years.

Soon after launch, NASA and the world learned that Hubble was carrying a deep flaw. Its main mirror had a “spherical aberration.” This flaw in its otherwise perfect shape was less than the width of a single human hair, yet it was enough to cloud the telescope’s vision. The whole purpose of putting the telescope into space was to rise above the earth’s atmosphere to see the planets, stars and galaxies more clearly. Billions of taxpayer dollars had been sunk into the project. And it was already about 350 miles up in space, orbiting at 17,000 miles per hour.

Unlike the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, NASA stepped forward and explained to the world exactly what went wrong. It was embarrassing for the country and for everyone who had labored for decades to build the telescope. But transparency was a must. Without it, science fails.

NASA also led the worldwide effort to design, build and deploy the telescope’s corrective optics, allowing the Hubble to fulfill its mission. None of this was inevitable. A correction might never have been devised. It might have failed. The Hubble might not have been designed to be fixed on orbit (thankfully, it was). The shuttle mission carrying the fix to Hubble could have suffered the same fate as Challenger. Hubble itself could have failed.

As we know now, the mission succeeded. Smart, determined Americans led the way. Brave astronauts captured and repaired the massive telescope while they orbited the earth and essentially gave it a contact lens. Vision cleared, Hubble has kept on exploring the universe for 30 years.

American Made, American Led

Hubble is a global project. The European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are among the many national agencies that participate in the Hubble project under American leadership and vision. Their support is not just token support. It’s real and it’s valuable to the project.

And it’s thoroughly American-led. Only the United States of America could have built, deployed and maintained Hubble through all these years. Only we have the combination of personal freedom, economic freedom, and mostly benign government with an open society that allows a project like Hubble to flourish and succeed. There are other free countries that lack the economic might and technological prowess to build a Hubble. The Soviet Union could possibly have mustered the finances and engineering, but it lacked the humanity to consider raw exploration a worthy goal. Only the United States could do this, and we did, and Americans marshaled the world to support it.

Hubble is named for an American astronomer who went against the grain when he proposed that the universe has a beginning. Dr. Edwin P. Hubble was one of the most important American scientists who ever lived. He discovered galaxies beyond ours, and that they are moving away from us, leading to evidence that the universe is expanding from a point and time of origin. Even the great Albert Einstein opposed him in the early days. Hubble later spent World War II helping the American military improve its artillery in the fight for freedom. The Hubble Space Telescope is patriotic to its roots.

So What Does This Have To Do With Coronavirus?

Hubble is one of the greatest technological feats in human history. It stands alongside Egypt’s pyramids as a thing people designed and built that demonstrates what determined humans can accomplish. Hubble science has changed our understanding of the cosmos and it will carry forward for centuries.

The coronavirus pandemic is a product of communism. Not the virus itself necessarily, but the pandemic and misery that have followed certainly are. China’s closed system did this. China’s paranoid rulers did this. Had communist China been forthcoming and transparent, probably 95% of the pandemic’s effects could have been avoided.

China may find a way to impose itself on the world, as it’s certainly trying to do. But its behavior proves it will never truly lead the world as long as it remains a closed, paranoid, totalitarian system. Closed systems inevitably collapse.

The United States is an innovative country. We will lead the world in the fight to beat coronavirus. No one else can, and no one else will. We have the same combination of traits that made Hubble possible and keep it flying for decades — freedom, economic power, an open society. We certainly have the motivation. We don’t have the decades it took to build Hubble, but we won’t need them either.

We will beat this virus. This vaccine or that test may come from scientists outside America. But though we don’t know what victory will look like yet, we know it will come, and we can be sure that Americans will lead the way.

Bryan Preston is a military veteran and former Hubble Space Telescope producer. He is the author of Hubble’s Revelations: The Amazing Time Machine and Its Most Important Discoveries.

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