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The Extraordinary Hubble Space Telescope

March 4th, 2016, NASA releases a historic image, one that many believed was impossible.

This red dot is an entire galaxy whose light took 13.4 billion years to reach us.

It is a photograph of our universe in its infancy, a mere three percent of its current

age.

All of a sudden now, you have a ringside seat to watch the entire universe evolve and change

in front of you.

All of that is down to the Hubble space telescope.

What could this mysterious red galaxy reveal about the origins of the cosmos?

That story begins when the Hubble telescope is still on the drawing board.

Hubble was meant to solve a problem, cause people were trying to use ground-based telescopes

to measure how fast the expansion of the universe was.

And that means a factor of uncertainty in the age of the universe.

How and when did our universe begin?

Solving that mystery would be an historic success at a time when the space program needs

it most.

In 1986, the nation is in mourning after the loss of seven crew members aboard the space

shuttle Challenger.

This is truly a national loss.

The members of the Challenger crew were pioneers.

We'll continue our quest in space, the future doesn't belong to the faint hearted.

It belongs to the brave.

They needed something to get back into the game, and Hubble was sort of that big shining star.

This was a big space telescope and we're gonna put this thing into orbit, and it's going

to look at black holes.

It's gonna figure out where the universe came from.

It's going to revolutionize astronomy.

In charge of this daunting mission is Charlie Pellerin.

The primary role of Hubble was to fix things after Challenger.

To show we could still do hard things.

I kept reminding myself of John Kennedy when he said, "We choose to go to the moon.

Not because it's easy, because it's hard."

We choose to do Hubble because it's hard, and it was damned hard.

Hubble will far surpass all ground-based telescopes for one simple reason.

Earth's atmosphere.

If you look up at the night sky, the stars are gonna appear like they're twinkling, but

the star is not changing.

What's happening is the, the same kind of irregulars in the atmosphere that you encounter

when you get turbulence in an airplane, it's all over the place.

Now, the solution to that is to put a telescope above the atmosphere.

But unlike ground telescopes, Hubble would be orbiting the earth at an astonishing speed

of almost five miles per second.

And that's a problem.

Now of course, the Hubble is this thing in space, moving thousands and thousands of miles

an hour in orbit, and which means its natural tendency is that it's going to be tumbling

end over end.

It's doing everything but holding still.

If you wanna take a snapshot that's clear, you know you have to hold your camera very steadily.

If you shake your camera, you get a fuzzy picture.

Same issue with Hubble.

The team must find a way to stabilize Hubble perfectly.

The solution is a gyroscope.

Like a top, a gyroscope maintains stability by spinning quickly on one axis.

The team will equip Hubble with six of the most finely balanced gyroscopes ever constructed,

each with a wheel spinning 320 times per second.

But even the tiniest imprecision in the gyroscopes will smear Hubble's images.

So, if you ask me before the launch is Hubble gonna work, and people did, I would say, "Of

course it's gonna work, cause there's no other answer."

What would you say?

Would, would you say after you spent almost $2 billion and 15 years, would you say, "Hell,

I don't know?"

Or would you say, "Let's hope so."

What would you say?

There's only one answer.

"Of course, it's gonna work."

Let’s go for auto sequence...

And lift off of the space shuttle Discovery with the Hubble space telescope.

Our window on the universe.

Okay, we have a go for release and we're gonna be a minute late.

OK Charlie.

Telescope's released.

OK thank you.

So, the telescope's up, Hubble's working.

It's deployed into space, and the shuttle comes home.

Feeling pretty, pretty, really pretty good right now.

The flight systems are all working extremely well.

Almost everything we agonized and worried about has done a great job for us.

I think that today everything is going exactly as we would have hoped.

But if we...

We had an event about two months later where we're gonna look at what's called first light.

Charlie is with Chief Engineer Gene Oliver when the first images arrive.

And I said, "Gene, wait a minute, wait a minute.

That's a fuzzy spot OK?"

He said, "Huh, don't worry."

I said, "What do you mean, don't worry?"

He said, "Well, if it's out of focus, we drive the stepping motor in this direction until

it's in perfect focus, so no big deal."

Charlie becomes convinced all that's needed is a technical adjustment.

He leaves for a trip overseas.

When he returns, he calls his boss to check in.

So, he comes on the phone and says, "Charlie, where are you?"

I say, "I'm in the red-carpet lounge in St Louis airport."

And he says to me, "What do you know about sphere collaboration?"

And I said, "Well all I know is that when people, amateurs typically, make a telescope

mirror by hand, and they do it sloppily, then the telescope's useless."

He said, "Well I'm glad you know that, because you launched Hubble space telescope with a

spherically aberrated mirror."

I said, "Did not."

And he said, "Did so."

This is two PhD’s, right?

And he says, "Go find the front page of any national newspaper and bring it back and read it to me."

So, I come back and above the fold, "National disaster.

Hubble launched with flawed mirror."

And he says, "Now what do you say?"

And I said, "You guys are good.

How did you get a fake newspaper into this very lounge that I'm landing in?"

The headline is no fake.

Charlie has launched Hubble with a fatal flaw and not the one he had feared.

Yesterday NASA admitted that its multi-billion-dollar eye in the sky has developed blurry vision.

We had failed in the most visible possible thing we'd done in many many years.

I'd have to say it was like a family member died.

It was like that.

I mean, it really was.

The observatory will not be sending back the spectacular pictures that NASA had promised.

The reason is that the mirrors are not focusing light properly.

To achieve focus, a telescope's mirror must be perfectly curved so that its reflected

light converges at a single point.

After so much worrying about Hubble's ability to stabilize itself, Charlie's team made an

amateur mistake.

Hubble uses a mirror.

It's two and a half meters across, eight feet.

And it focuses the light to a very very specific focus.

And if it's off by even a little bit, the light won't come to a focus.

The problem with Hubble is that it wasn't the right shape.

I believe that the edge of the mirror, the whole error was like a 50th of a human hair.

No human could ever look at that mirror and suspect there's a problem.

We had so many safeguards and I'll look at this, and I just go, "My word."

Boy, we were in so much trouble and didn't know it.

What, what, what a tragedy.

Basically, without some novel technical answer, we're screwed.

NASA is embarrassed, while across the country Charlie and his team are mocked.

There was also so much in the media, Hubble was the butt of so many jokes.

People were saying, "Well how did we spend almost $2 billion and come up with this?"

I tried to avoid the news as much as I could but it, it was impossible.

It was even in the New York Times, Washington Post.

It had crying breaking out, and astronomers were crying everywhere.

One of my most senior people is drunk at his desk.

When I realised what had happened, I didn't believe my personal reputation was in danger.

I believed it was ruined.

I mean, it was gone.

I mean, for this, this level of failure.

Arguably the biggest screw up in the history of science, and I was the leader of the team,

so yeah, it was bad.

But Charlie is determined to find a solution.

I'm not waiting a minute longer than I have to, to get this telescope fixed.

I didn't know how to do it.

I had no idea if it even was possible yet.

After months of searching, his team thinks they might have an answer.

If the mirror was simply poorly ground to a very sloppy weight, it'd be hopeless.

But the mirror was perfect, just ground to the wrong prescription.

When we humans have vision problems, we correct that problem by wearing eye glasses, which

then are correcting the direction of the light and make sure that it is focusing properly.

That is basically what the Hubble needed.

These glasses would come in the form of a machine called Costar.

Costar contains five pairs of small mirrors on motorized arms.

These mirrors correct the light beam entering the telescope.

Finally, you sorta go, "My word, we can fix this thing."

But with Hubble already in space, this repair won't come easy.

Kathryn Thornton and her fellow astronauts must risk their own safety to save Hubble

from disaster.

A lot of things can go wrong when you're on a spacewalk, but most people when they leave

the airlock are not so much afraid that something's gonna happen to them, they're afraid they're

gonna mess up.

That's, that's, sure your biggest concern is that, is that our mission was so critical

and it was critical that they be done right.

Hubble's science instruments are contained in four bays.

Kathryn must replace one instrument called a high-speed photometer, with Costar.

Once installed, the corrective mirrors can deploy.

I mean, remember, this is a huge instrument the size of a bus.

Nothing like that has ever been done before, and it represents a huge number of technological

challenges.

But Thornton is far from certain that everything will go according to plan.

And I would have bet money that when we were putting these instruments in Hubble, we would

have run into some problem that we weren't expecting.

I tell you, I'm gonna slip over, you got another set to keep coming up.

Costar is a great big silver box the, the size of a phone booth, and I would have bet

that things wouldn't fit.

And we're gonna slide this thing in and it's gonna get halfway in, and it's gonna go kerthunk.

And, and hit something.

And as bad as it was, we could always make it worse.

We could have killed it, we could have killed it.

This is opening the door for Costar.

I'm on the end of the mechanical arm, and I can recognize that from this picture because

I can see the broken red stripes around my thighs there.

I haven't seen some of this in a long time.

This is nice, I like this.

We had a lot of eyes watching us.

We had everybody on the ground watching, we had everybody in the crew module watching us.

You know, don't, don't hurt it, don't hurt it, don't hurt it.

And it's all up to you.

Don't screw this up.

Costar is, is a pretty big instrument.

It weighs several hundred pounds, maybe 700 pounds on earth, and I can move it with just

my fingertips.

As Costar slides into place, Thornton can only hope that everything will fit.

And it just slid right in.

I could feel it hit a stop, but that was a bit of a relief.

The nightmare I'd had didn't happen.

But they couldn't calibrate it until after we were long gone, and so we had no idea that

our mission was successful, even after we landed.

All anyone can do is wait for the pictures.

11 days later, the calibrations are complete.

You know, this was what was happening in December of 1993, everybody gathering around the monitors

and, and looking at the first images taken by Hubble space telescope.

And they were gorgeous.

I'm sitting there with tears running down my face looking at this stuff.

And everybody's spellbound.

I had no clue that the images would be as powerful as they are.

I never imagined something like this.

This is, this is astounding.

It's got to be astounding to anybody.

But these are more than beautiful images.

Each pixel helps unlock another scientific mystery.

Cause people was trying to use ground-based telescopes to measure the expansion of the

universe, and that means uncertainty in the age of the universe.

But by looking deeper and deeper, it's looking farther and farther back in time, and it's

measuring the expansion of the universe so we can tell precisely when the universe formed,

you know, 13.7 billion years ago.

Hubble has solved, you know, the, one of the biggest mysteries in astronomy and in science.

With each image, the discoveries keep coming.

The Hubble space telescope makes me feel like a kid in a candy store.

There, there is no way you're going to be able to sample and taste everything that you

want to.

It just, it amazes me the power of something where you are guaranteed to discover something

new about the universe.

The universe is a pretty big place.

So, you need a telescope that can see very very far away to even start to get a handle

on how the universe is changing over time, when it began.

In the case of the Hubble space telescope, the Hubble space telescope has the power to

see on the order of, of, you know, 11 billion light years away.

And that means you're seeing things as they were 11 billion years ago.

All of a sudden now, you have a ringside seat to watch the entire universe evolve and change

in front of you.

You can see how fast things were expanding, how that whole process worked.

And so, for the first time we knew that the universe really is about 13.8 billion years,

we know how fast it expanded.

There are very few times in history where you can just take new technology and discover

something new, guaranteed.

You know, in the case of the Hubble space telescope, you could point it somewhere random,

and you would see stars and galaxies, and objects out there that had never been seen

before.

How many galaxies are out there?

This was something that we wondered.

There were theories about.

But the Hubble space telescope really showed us how many galaxies there are.

Hubble actually looked at a blank part of the sky, a part of the sky that we didn't

think anything was there, and it stared at that place for a month.

And believe me, this was controversial.

Use a month of valuable Hubble time to look at nothing?

But instead, pixel by pixel, photon by photon, Hubble teased out thousands of galaxies.

Everywhere in the sky, every tiny point you look, is covered with galaxies.

They've been invisible to us before, but they were there all along, and we are surrounded

by them in the hundreds of billions.

In every direction we look.

They pointed Hubble at a place in the sky where there was nothing, and there are like

1500 galaxies in that photo.

1500 galaxies?

You know, our Milky Way is just one tiny little galaxy.

We now know that there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on all the beaches

in the world.

But Hubble is also a time machine.

You see, there's this wonderful look back effect, where the farther out in space you

look, it took light a long time to get to you.

And now you look at these images, and you'll effectively look back almost to the beginning

of time, the beginning of the universe with Hubble.

This new image from March 2016, is the furthest look back in time yet.

The light from this young galaxy dates to just 400 million years after the Big Bang.

It is surprisingly bright, which means that galaxies were growing much faster, and much

earlier than we ever knew.

25 years after launch, Hubble continues to amaze.

The idea that somebody could be interviewing me and putting these images up in front of me,

and have me comment on 'em, and telling me that we're in our 25th year of successful

science operations... that, that's a mind blower.

In, in NASA, I think Hubble's only second to the moon landing.

I mean, it's that big.