How NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope gave America eyes above the atmosphere

American Built: The Age of Hubble

This episode of ‘American Built’ shows how NASA astronauts embarked on a mission and created the Hubble Telescope.

For ages, scientists, astronomers and human lifeforms alike have all begged to ask the big question: Are we alone in the Universe?

But exploring outer space from the ground didn’t help with an answer until the construction of the Hubble Space Telescope took the quest above our atmosphere.

Former Lockheed Martin vice president Jim Crocker described studying the stars from the ground like studying birds from the bottom of a pond on the newest episode of FOX Business’ "American Built."

"By getting the telescope up above that few hundred miles of atmosphere, we can see clearly again," he said. 

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In 1946, Dr. Lymann Spitzer, an astronomer and physicist at Princeton University, first pitched the idea to construct a large telescope in space but soon realized the technology to see the project through would be generations away. But after the launch of the Explorer 1 satellite in 1958, NASA’s simultaneous development of the space shuttle and an in-space telescope became more of a reality.

The struggles with the Hubble Telescope

Engineers explain how the telescope malfunctioned even after billions of dollars spent on the project on ‘American Built’.

As the project developed, NASA's first chief astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, known as the "mother of Hubble," became one of the biggest advocates for launching a telescope in orbit.

In 1970, Roman pitched the concept for an in-space telescope to Congress and was able to explain its importance for space exploration. The plan would be to fit the school-bus-sized spacecraft inside the space shuttle’s cargo bay to then release the telescope and watch it unfurl.

The telescope’s functionality included the ability to send updates back to Earth and accessibility for astronauts. The most crucial feature of the telescope was its massive mirrors which required precise engineering in order to operate – a project Congress worried was a waste of government spending.

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As the cost kept rising, the operation came to a halt when the Challenger shuttle exploded upon takeoff in 1986. Hubble was forced to be stored until the end of the decade once the shuttle was ready to launch once again.

On April 24, 1990, the space shuttle Discovery rose 340 miles above the Earth and began the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope. But as the telescope left the bounds of the shuttle, the solar arrays suddenly seized up, threatening the $4.7 billion contraption from gaining any power.

Luckily, the astronauts were able to manually complete Hubble’s deployment and ten minutes later, the telescope locked onto the sun’s power and the crew returned safely to Earth.

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"Science has been revolutionized by Hubble with discoveries that were made of things no one even imagined until Hubble was in orbit," Crocker said. "A thousand years from now, the images from Hubble will be in the minds and memories of a world that remembers what this country did with the first great observatory in space."

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