The Launching of Hubble: The Ultimate Story


By Emily Levesque, University of Washington

The support and success of NASA’s space astronomy program—and the ultimate funding, creation, and launching of the Hubble Space Telescope—can be credited to NASA’s first chief of astronomy: Nancy Roman. Roman was a successful researcher and skilled observer, studying the classification and spectra of stars in the auspicious tradition of the Harvard Computers.

The Hubble Space Telescope at the moment of release
As a great space telescope, the Hubble took decades of observations until it was finally built and launched. (Image: NASA/Public domain)

Nancy Roman: The Designer

Nancy Roman was born in Tennessee in 1925. She went on to study astronomy at Swarthmore College and then the University of Chicago. She was working at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, when Sputnik was launched in 1957. Less than a year later, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—NASA—was officially formed, and Roman started her new job as NASA’s first chief astronomer in 1959. 

She was tasked with overseeing the promotion, design, and success of the world’s first space telescopes. Based on early proposals from the scientific community, Roman oversaw the launch of the Orbiting Astronomical Observatories; their eventual success lent strong support to NASA’s hopes of building a large space telescope.

An image of Nancy Roman and a model of the Hubble Space Telescope
Nancy Roman’s effort led to the creation of the Hubble Space Telescope. (Image: NASA/Public domain)

The Funding and Creation of the Hubble Space Telescope

By 1971, Nancy Roman had led the creation of the Large Space Telescope Science Steering Group, which set to work on actually designing a space telescope. Another burgeoning NASA project at the time, the Space Shuttle, factored heavily into their plans, leading to an imagined telescope that could fit into the cargo bay of a shuttle to be carried into orbit and then serviced regularly by visiting astronauts.

Congress temporarily cut funding for the telescope in its 1975 budget, but this immediately sparked fervent efforts to restore the funding by Nancy Roman, telescope project scientist Bob O’Dell, and the growing number of astronomers pinning their hopes on their project, including Lyman Spitzer. 

Finally, in 1977 Congress approved funding for the Large Space Telescope (LST) and the project officially began. The first steps? Beginning the painstaking grinding and shaping of the telescope’s crucial 7.9-foot primary mirror, and training astronauts in a massive underwater facility to simulate the weightlessness of space for future missions to the telescope.

The First Attempt of Launching

Two years later, Roman retired from NASA, having spearheaded the creation of NASA’s space astronomy program and the development of a large space telescope. The launch was scheduled for 1983, and astronomers hoped to be taking breathtaking new pictures of the universe soon afterward. By 1983, the LST had been officially renamed the Hubble Space Telescope, but it still wasn’t in space. 

The grinding and polishing of the primary mirror had been delayed until 1981, and the telescope’s full optical assembly hadn’t been completed until 1984. The continued delays pushed Hubble’s launch back to September of 1986.

Then, on January 28th of 1986, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after its launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, killing all seven crew members and bringing NASA’s shuttle program to a halt for over two years while the accident was investigated.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Great Heroes and Discoveries of AstronomyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The First Light

During the delay, work on the telescope continued, testing different telescope components and continuing to prepare Hubble’s ground software, which would be used to control the telescope in orbit from the Space Telescope Science Institute headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland. Crewed space shuttle flights resumed in 1988, and Hubble was finally launched by the space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990.

The first image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope
The first image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope was not sharp and clear. (Image: NASA/Public domain)

After start-up and initial testing, the official first light image from Hubble was captured on May 20th, with the telescope trained on a nearby stellar cluster. Almost immediately, astronomers—including Roger Lynds, Chris Burrows, and Sandy Faber—noticed a problem in the first images from the telescope; most notably a circular halo of light surrounding the brightest star in the cluster.

Fixing the Flaw

The Hubble mirror, as the world would eventually learn, had been launched with a severe flaw; it was suffering from an optical phenomenon known as spherical aberration. Spherical aberration is easily avoided by shaping and grinding mirrors to a parabolic, rather than a spherical shape. 

Eventually, a team of some of the world’s best astronomers and telescope builders—including Lyman Spitzer, Sandy Faber, and Roger Angel, the Arizona mirror maker—convened to come up with a solution. 

In the end, a complicated new instrument was designed for Hubble, known as COSTAR—the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement—which was painstakingly designed to reflect light from Hubble’s own mirrors to three of the cutting-edge scientific instruments that had been launched with Hubble to record its first observations. 

Finally, Up and Running

After several years of building the new instrument, the space shuttle Endeavour launched in December of 1993 with a daunting task: grab the Hubble Space Telescope, tuck it into the shuttle’s cargo bay, and then make a grueling series of five lengthy spacewalks to install COSTAR and make other small repairs. 

The fix worked. When Hubble took its new second light images in December of 1993, the images came back sharp and clear. The space telescope was finally up and running.

COSTAR continued to work as a corrective optics instrument for nearly 16 years until it was removed during Hubble’s fourth and final servicing mission in 2009. By then, other servicing missions had removed Hubble’s old instruments and replaced them with new ones, and each new instrument contained its own personal set of corrective optics to account for the mirror problems.

Common Questions about the Story of the Launching of Hubble

Q: Who was Nancy Roman?

Nancy Roman was a researcher who started her job as the first chief astronomer of NASA in 1959. The development and design of the Hubble Space Telescope are credited her.

Q: When did the Hubble Space Telescope launch?

The first attempt to launch the Hubble Space Telescope was on January 28, 1986. But a tragic accident happened on this date: Only after 73 seconds of launching, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart and all the crew was killed. Finally, and after several years of delay, the Hubble Telescope was successfully launched on April 24,1990.

Q: What was the major problem with the Hubble Space Telescope when it was finally launched into orbit?

Soon after the launching of Hubble in 1990, pictures and data from its instruments showed that its main mirror was flawed—it suffered from spherical aberration which could be easily fixed by using a parabolic mirror.

Keep Reading
Cecilia Payne’s Contributions to the Field of Astronomy
Harvard Computers: The Brilliant Women Who Classified Stars
Studying Stars in the Late 19th Century