The Hubble Telescope
I’ve been following the story of the Hubble telescope for two decades, ever since I read about it in the New York Times on my way to work. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that seeing what the telescope saw was one of the things that made me want to be a scientist.
The Hubble has not always been a great success. It has suffered from problems with its mirror, which have kept it from being used at full capacity, and there have been mistakes in its operation. The software originally sent up with it had bugs too, but fortunately they were caught before they did any permanent damage. The Hubble has had its share of bad luck, too: space shuttle missions have been delayed by lightning strikes and by two accidents, one of which killed seven people.
Still, all in all it is an astonishing triumph of science and engineering. Three more advanced versions are planned; if all goes well they will open our eyes to more distant worlds than anyone has seen before.
The Hubble Space Telescope is one of the most important scientific instruments ever built. It has made discoveries that would have been inconceivable without it, and many of these discoveries are among the most beautiful ever seen by human eyes.
The Hubble is also a triumph of mechanical engineering. It has never received the credit it deserves for this, because most of its workings are completely invisible, hidden inside a giant mirror. People tend to focus instead on the human side, the fact that it was named after a man who had nothing to do with its construction and would likely have opposed it if he had. And people have tended to admire this as a cosmic joke, rather than as a tribute to what engineers can do.