Hubble Dreams: The 1946 Paper Promoting a Powerful Space Telescope

The story of the man who advocated for an extra-terrestrial observatory
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NASA

The Hubble Space Telescope is aging. But there was a time when it was merely a twinkle in some astronomer's eye.

In fact, we know exactly who that astronomer was, and when he first told the world about the twinkle.

Lyman Spitzer, who was at Yale in 1946 (and later went to Princeton), published Appendix V of the Douglas Aircraft Company's Project RAND. The title of the work was, "Astronomical Advantages of an Extra-Terrestrial Observatory."

"While a more exhaustive analysis would alter some of the details of the present study," Spitzer wrote, "it would probably not change the chief conclusion -- that such a scientific tool, if practically feasible, could revolutionize astronomical techniques and open up completely new vistas of astronomical research."

Spitzer's original paper was republished in The Astronomical Quarterly in 1990, and he added a postscript about the impact of his paper, which is actually a remarkable document itself. How does an idea written down somehow become a satellite flying around Earth?

"Since this 1946 paper did not appear in the astronomical literature and was not generally distributed in reprint form, its direct influence on other astronomers must have been almost negligible," Spitzer writes. "Its chief effect was on me. My studies convinced me that a large space telescope would revolutionize astronomy and might well be launched in my lifetime."

From that point forward, he promoted the creation and launch of such a telescope. Over his years at Princeton, he worked out some of the technical problems and talked with other astronomers. Twenty years later, during the heat of the space race, the National Academy of Science asked Spitzer to head up a committee "on the Large Space Telescope" in 1966, when such a project began to look more feasible. They issued a report in 1969.

"During the work on that report, possible astronomical observing programs were discussed in detail with various groups of astronomers, who in the course of these discussions generally became enthusiastic supporters of such a large and powerful telescope," he recalled. "This support was a major element in Congressional approval of the large telescope project in 1977."

While people were aware of the limitations of earth-based telescopes, it was Spitzer who articulated and promoted the vision of the orbital observatory, NASA historian Gabriel Okolski agreed.

It took a good eight years to get funding, and another 13 to build and launch the Hubble. And, in some ways, that is the crowning glory of science: the timescales. Spitzer saw this thing through for 30 years to completion!

I don't think that kind of life approach comes naturally to people. It's a remarkable set of institutions that makes such long-term thinking possible.

This weekend, I was talking with a graduate student who works on stem cells in the heart. She said, "The problems I'm thinking about now are probably the problems I'll be thinking about when I die."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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