The NASA Follies

The Hubble Wars: Astrophysics Meets Astropolitics in the Two-Billion-Dollar Struggle Over the Hubble Space Telescope.
by Eric J. Chaisson.
HarperCollins. 386 pp. $27.50.

In December 1993, American astronauts were sent to perform repairs on the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope and in so doing to mend the reputation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). With the Hubble mission successfully completed, NASA was able to recapture for a brief moment some of the glory that had attended the space program’s early years before the onset of a series of highly publicized failures.

In truth, however, the results of the Hubble repair effort were more ambiguous than has been commonly realized. Some serious technical problems were not resolved, and even the improvements that were made involved complex trade-offs in which some of the telescope’s capabilities were enhanced at the expense of others. Moreover, contrary to a widespread perception, Hubble was not entirely crippled prior to the repairs; the telescope, despite its flaws, had been gathering valuable scientific data.

If the public did not have an accurate appreciation of what was going on, much of the blame belongs to NASA itself. Beginning well before the telescope was launched in 1990, the agency had surrounded the Hubble project in a cloud of hype. Once the instrument was in orbit, NASA at first sought to downplay the growing technical problems and then, through sheer ineptitude, managed to overstate the extent of the flaws.

Throughout, NASA bombarded the public with inaccurate information, much of it reported uncritically by the press. Notably erroneous was the agency’s repeated assertion that Hubble could peer seven times farther into the universe than ground-based telescopes—a claim devoid of meaning since terrestrial instruments currently detect objects near the edge of the observable universe, more than ten-billion light-years away. Any objects beyond that periphery are too distant for light from them to have reached the earth’s vicinity in the current epoch, and thus are equally invisible to orbiting and ground-based telescopes.



In The Hubble Wars, astrophysicist Eric J. Chaisson provides a lucid exposition of the space telescope and of the diverse celestial phenomena the instrument is designed to study, while at the same time presenting a personal memoir of his years as a senior scientist working on the Hubble project. Chaisson makes a compelling argument for Hubble’s scientific value: the instrument may provide new insight into, among other things, the age, size, and fate of the universe. Yet politics looms as large as science in this book, and Chaisson roams freely across a range of topics: the future of the nation’s troubled space program; the media’s shortcomings in reporting on science and technology; and the precarious status of the scientific community in a society that is becoming disinclined to pay for, or even pay attention to, large-scale research projects.

Chaisson worked until 1992 at the Space Telescope Science Institute, a consortium of universities that oversees the telescope’s scientific activities. The Science Institute was founded by NASA, under pressure from astronomers who mistrusted the emphasis on engineering feats rather than the scientific observation which had been apparent in previous space projects, including the Apollo moon missions. This tension between science and engineering intensified after Hubble was launched, as NASA engineers sought to conduct extensive tests upon the orbiting instrument while Science Institute researchers pushed for the telescope to be aimed at objects of scientific importance.

What is most striking about many of the bureaucratic battles Chaisson describes is their pettiness. NASA, in his telling, fiercely resisted sharing credit for Hubble’s real or prospective achievements with the Science Institute or with the European Space Agency, which also participated in the project. A major point of contention involved, of all things, the logo that was to be displayed on materials released to the media. Exactly as the scientists feared, NASA demonstrated little understanding of scientific method. Once adverse publicity began to appear, agency officials demanded that the scientists immediately come up with a major astronomical discovery, as if such a thing could be delivered upon request.



Yet The Hubble Wars is not a simple morality play of self-seeking bureaucrats versus dispassionate scientists. Even among the scientists themselves, Chaisson depicts a community riven by professional jealousies and intellectual insecurities, and he recounts scientific meetings that degenerated into hysterical shouting matches. A welfare-state mentality prevailed among some of the scientists, who regarded federal-research grants as an entitlement. And the project repeatedly was hindered by battles over access to the telescope’s images. In a struggle Chaisson likens to that recently fought over the Dead Sea Scrolls, astronomers who had staked a proprietary claim to some part of the sky fought bitterly to delay the viewing of “their” celestial objects by competitors and the public.

The role that politicians played in the Hubble project was also far from inspiring. For the nation’s leaders, the space telescope was little more than a vehicle for short-term political gain. Chaisson describes how the Bush White House established a back channel to the Science Institute in order to circumvent NASA’s bureaucracy, but then quickly moved to distance itself from the Hubble project once things started to go wrong. Senator Barbara Mikulski, a strong supporter of the telescope, was one who seemed to understand Hubble’s scientific importance. Yet at a press conference following the repair mission, when asked by a reporter why the public should care about the telescope, she lamely replied, “Jobs,” thus rekindling fears that the project was merely pork for the aerospace industry. Some politicians found ways to profit from NASA’s stumbles. Congressional hearings, for example, gave then-Senator Albert Gore a highly visible platform from which to grandstand while self-righteously grilling NASA officials on Hubble’s flaws.



Absorption in the telescope’s activities made life at the Science Institute peculiarly insular. When, Chaisson reports, he finally noticed in late 1990 that the United States was sending troops to the Persian Gulf, his chief concern was that media attention would be diverted from the interesting data Hubble was beginning to compile. Chaisson also notes, correctly, that the war resulted in a reversal of the respective public images of NASA and the military. In sharp contrast to the 1960’s and 70’s, the Defense Department now took on the mantle of technological heroism while NASA, with its defective telescope, was dismissed as incompetent or worse.

There is much to confirm this revised assessment. The Hubble Wars provides a fascinating look, for example, at the uneasy interplay between NASA and the military/intelligence officials responsible for spy satellites. In Chaisson’s telling, those on the “dark side” of the nation’s space activities had overcome various technical hurdles well in advance of their civilian counterparts, and some of Hubble’s problems could have been avoided by a greater sharing of information. (At one point, in a clear display of superior engineering, a spy satellite zoomed by to photograph the ailing Hubble telescope.)

Altogether, The Hubble Wars presents a broad and searing indictment of NASA. This is a book about problems, not solutions—although Chaisson advocates that NASA be thoroughly reformed or replaced, his recommendations are sketched rather briefly. But the light he shines is much needed, powerfully illuminating why the space program seems to belong more and more to the past and less and less to the future.

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