Since at least 1923, about 34 years before mankind managed to put a satellite in orbit, plans to put a telescope in space have been made. About 50 years later, in the 70’s, astronomers began serious efforts to get funding from Congress for a Large Space Telescope. These efforts eventually produced the Hubble Space Telescope, which has become one of NASA’s most successful projects yet.
Things did not start out so well for Hubble. At first, Congress cut funding. Astronomers lobbied hard for it and Congress eventually agreed to restore some of the funding. The original plans for Hubble were downsized somewhat to accommodate the budget.
Hubble was scheduled to be launched in the fall of 1986, but the Challenger disaster in January grounded the Shuttle fleet, and the Hubble. This gave extra time to test the telescope’s equipment and develop communication software, but it also drove up the costs, since the Hubble had to be kept in a powered, nitrogen-filled, clean room for an extra four years. Hubble was originally expected to cost $400 million, but inflation and delays increased the price to around $2.5 billion.
In April 1990 Space Shuttle Discovery flew mission STS-31, finally delivering the great observatory to outer space. The mission was very successful, but bad news came within weeks; Hubble’s main mirror had a serious flaw that greatly limited the telescope’s usefulness. The edges of the mirror were too flat by a mere 2.2 microns, which resulted in blurry images. It was an embarrassing mistake for NASA.
Hubble was designed to be serviced while in orbit; thus plans were quickly made for the first servicing mission. In late 1993 Space Shuttle Endeavour flew STS-61 and made the repairs successfully. The mission was a complete success and by 1994 astronomers finally had a fully working telescope; just in time to observe the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact Jupiter in July of that year.
Hubble has enabled scientists and astronomers to see deeper into the universe than ever before, and make many new discoveries about our solar system and beyond. The awe-inspiring images it has produced are equally enjoyed by the public, and has helped kindle more interest in exploring Final Frontier.
Four more servicing missions were flown to Hubble, each improving the telescopes abilities and extending its useful life. After the Columbia disaster in 2003, plans were canceled to bring Hubble home in a future space shuttle mission, as well as any additional servicing missions to the aging observatory. The scientific community came together once again to secure another servicing mission, and in 2006 NASA administrator Michael Griffin reinstated a final servicing mission, STS-125. It flew in 2009 with Space Shuttle Atlantis, and was a complete success, performing many repairs that Hubble desperately needed. Hubble is now expected to serve us well through at least 2014, and hopefully longer. At the end of its life a robotic mission will be flown up to it to safely de-orbit the telescope; sadly it will not be returned to earth in one piece.