The History of Hubble Space Telescope Explained: The Future of Space with a Sorted Past

The History of Hubble Space Telescope Explained: The Future of Space with a Sorted Past

The History of Hubble Space Telescope Explained: The Future of Space with a Sorted Past


Hubble Space Telescope has quietly orbited Earth for just shy of three decades. Indeed, the scope has been our window into deep space, unlocking some of the universe’s greatest mysteries. Not to mention, Hubble has delivered some of mankind’s most detailed, break-taking photos of the cosmos. But, Hubble’s turbulent past, and its long road to launch may shock you. Astronimate proudly presents: History of Hubble Space Telescope Explained.

Why build a space telescope?

Hubble launched in April, 1990. However, desires and concepts for space-based optics dates back to World War II. Yale professor, Lyman Spitzer published his paper, Astronomical Advantages of an Extra-Terrestrial Observatory, in 1946.

Primarily, Spitzer detailed how Earth’s atmosphere obstructs starlight, which an extra-terrestrial scope could avoid. Furthermore, Earth’s atmosphere blocks valuable light, like X-rays from stars and galaxies. Whereas, telescopes in orbit would receive this light, and thus, far more useful information about our universe.

Later, Spitzer headed the national committee to plan such a large orbiting observatory. Finally, in 1969, the committee published their full report, urging the approval, and construction of an orbiting space telescope. Over all, the report pleads, in great detail, why a space-based telescope would allow ground-breaking research and development in cosmology.

NASA joins the party

Next, bringing a space telescope to life, meant winning NASA’s crucial influence. Firstly, NASA and contractors conducted deep research into the difficulties and hurdles of constructing such a fantastic tool.

Among the most important initial decisions, the project’s timeline. Simply put, should small phases gradually work up to the grand, full-sized space telescope? Or, should one large project construct the complete space telescope?

Meanwhile, NASA’s plans for a Space Shuttle were now approved, and in-motion. In particular, the Space Shuttle program vastly widened NASA’s flexibility for lofty and progressive projects. Not to mention, many credit this new flexibility as the tipping point for Hubble’s approval.

The elephant in the room…funding

At last, with NASA on board, the project that would ultimately become Hubble Space Telescope had a hopeful and promising future. But, one massive piece was still missing, funding.

At first, the all-in price tag for the project rang in at $400 to $500 million. Which, at the time was an astronomical amount of budgeting for space endeavors. In other words, an incredibly tough sell for federal funding. In fact, in 1975 funding was initially denied unanimously by a House Appropriations Committee.

Yet, in true competitive spirit, denial only spawned determination! Before long, a full-fledged campaign to build the telescope, pioneered by NASA and influential astronomers arose. In fact, Spitzer again headed the project, helping lead the charge.

Even internationally, what would become the European Space Agency (ESA) lent its hand, providing cost-efficient solar panels. Ultimately, such global synergies birthed plans for international collaboration on this project and future projects, like the International Space Station. In the end, international teamwork scientifically benefits all parties. Not to mention, large costs, previously isolated to one country could now be split, drastically reducing costs!

Furthermore, reductions in telescope mirror sizes and international collaboration eventually brought estimated prices to $200 million, half of the original budget. Finally, in 1977, congress green-lit the budget, and the Large Space Telescope Project was officially born.

Construction begins

Construction of Hubble’s delicate mirrors is underway.

In 1978, design began with contracts awarded to both Perkin-Elmer Corporation for a mirror, and Lockheed Missiles and Space Company for the spacecraft.

Originally, a 1983 launch would encounter several long delays. After all, while the mirror was completed in 1981, final spacecraft assembly would not even begin until 1985.

However, 1983 would earn its place in history for naming the telescope after notable astronomer, Edwin P. Hubble. Famous for his research of stars and galaxies, Hubble was the first to discover the universe’s expansion.

At last, launch time arrives…twice

Finally, with Hubble’s assembly complete, NASA prepared for a 1986 launch. However, one of spaceflight’s greatest tragedies struck.

During what seemed a routine launch, Space Shuttle Challenger launched into the Florida skies on a cold January morning. Suddenly, only a minute into flight, Challenger exploded, tragically killing all crew members.

Again, Hubble’s launch, and future was uncertain. On account of Challenger’s sad demise, NASA delayed all launches indefinitely.

Hubble Space Telescope Launch – Discovery April 1990
Credit: NASA

Resuming launches in 1988, NASA was again prepared to launch. Finally, on the morning of April 24, 1990, Hubble Space Telescope launched, aboard Discovery. Included in the telescope’s initial payload were the following instruments:

  • Wide Field Planetary Camera
  • Goddard spectrograph
  • Faint Object Camera (FOC)

Literally, after decades of waiting and lobbying, Hubble Space Telescope was in orbit, ready to amaze.

Blurry images and worldwide broken hearts

Only weeks into its mission, Hubble immediately return blurry, out-of-focus images. Indeed, the images allowed astronomers to observe and study the cosmos. However, after record-breaking funding and years of planning, Hubble’s images were truly a point of embarrassment and despair. Not to mention, NASA’s reputation was in grave danger. In fact, initial images from the telescope looked like this:

An aberration caused part of the high-tech scope’s mirror to be too flat, poorly receiving light. In pure disarray, staff members scrambled to devise a fix for the mirror. Below, Smithsonian’s video highlights the upset and reactions to Hubble’s first images.

A triumphant, ground-breaking repair

Finally, in time for Hubble’s first scheduled maintenance and servicing mission in 1993, a plan was hatched.

Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR) would be implemented. Basically, the instruments would compensate for the mirror’s aberrations, allowing the scope to properly function.

In December, 1993, a record-setting five consecutive space walks were conducted, allowing crew members of the STS-61 mission to service Hubble. Ultimately, COSTAR, along with several new instrument replacements allowed visual corrections for Hubble’s mirrors, thus, correcting the problems.

Immediately, upon STS-61’s arrival back on Earth, the triumphant mission proved to be a genuine success. At last, Hubble Space Telescope was returning crystal-clear images of the cosmos.

Team member demonstrates Hubble’s improved and corrected mirror
Credit: C-SPAN

Hubble: Our window into the universe

Despite its total $1.5 billion lifetime budget, rocky beginnings and tribulations, Hubble has been successfully orbiting Earth for 27 years. No doubt, the space telescope has greatly enhanced our understanding of the universe. Not to mention, along the way, some of man’s most notable space photos have been captured.

Don’t believe us? Enjoy these top 25 Hubble Space Telescope photos:

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