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Eye on the Heavens
The Hubble Space Telescope has probed deep into the universe, far back in time and space. One man has guided it through its ups and downs—and has the white hair to prove it. By Kathy Sawyer
Comments () | Published May 1, 2007
Ed Weiler has fought for Hubble’s survival for nearly 30 years. Now he’s looking to a 2008 shuttle mission that again will extend the telescope’s life. Photograph by Matthew Worden.

Astrophysicist Edward Weiler introduces a lot of his stories about the Hubble Space Telescope with the phrase “little did I know . . . .” Then he might point to a pretty picture. Arrayed on his office wall are some of the cosmic portraits that have made the orbiting telescope a symbol of scientific excellence, a calendar icon, a celebrity among schoolkids.

Weiler also has more down-to-earth mementos—clippings and videos from policy battles and humiliations, times when the Hubble was nearly killed in its cradle, denounced as a “techno-turkey,” compared with Mr. Magoo.

At age 58, Weiler has lived through almost 30 years of “little did I know” Hubble moments, many of them emotional stunners of agony or joy. He first got involved with the project as a $12,000-a-year research associate at Princeton in 1976. He proved his mettle as a Big Science manager at NASA thanks to Hubble.

He has served as a Hubble sherpa as he has risen through job titles—including six years, beginning in 1998, as NASA’s chief of space science. In that job, he was responsible for the agency’s space observatories, the planetary exploration program, and the Origins program, an effort to discover the cosmic origins and evolution of life.

As he negotiates the tricky terrain of technopolitics and science, he shows a toughness born of his childhood in inner-city Chicago. Science magazine once called him “NASA’s street fighter.” Along the way, his sandy hair has turned almost white, and he gave up smoking in favor of nicotine gum.

In his current post as director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Weiler is presiding over another cliffhanger chapter in the Hubble story, the on-off-on-again preparations for a fifth and final visit by shuttle astronauts to rescue the telescope.

These are good times for the Hubble. It has helped revolutionize human understanding of the universe, as documented in almost 6,800 research papers. Its explorations, revealed in tens of thousands of images distinguished by their detail, have ranged from Earth’s nearest neighbors to remote galaxies close to the beginning of time and space. It has probed further into the cosmos than any other instrument. And astronomers around the world still request much more observing time on the telescope than it can deliver.

Its achievements include helping to determine the age of the universe (about 13.8 billion years); confirming the existence and ubiquity of black holes (collapsed objects with masses up to billions of times that of our sun, so compact that not even light can escape their gravity); providing visual evidence that the material to form planets—possible platforms for life—is found around almost all young stars; and facilitating the discovery of a “dark energy” that is counteracting gravity and accelerating the expansion of the universe.

Weiler says of Hubble: “It’s one of the ‘pyramids’ our generation will leave behind, something that will be remembered in 100 years.”

But when he visits classrooms, Weiler notes, he goes beyond extolling Hubble’s successes. He speaks about the human drama behind the achievements, the importance of trying hard things and persevering through spectacular failure.

“You’ve got to understand what it’s like to be on top of Mount Everest to really understand what it means to be at the bottom, in the valley,” Weiler says of his ride with Hubble.

By age 13, Ed Weiler had built his own six-inch, 100-pound reflecting telescope. Before he was 15, he knew he wanted to be an astronomer. “Growing up in inner-city Chicago,” he says, “the only freedom I had was the sky.”

In 1976, with a PhD in astrophysics from Northwestern, Weiler landed an astronomy job at Princeton in the fledgling field of space-based astronomy, turning down a chance to earn almost twice as much as a computer programmer.

He was assigned to work with a research satellite nicknamed Copernicus, which would help sell scientists on the value of space-based research. Princeton’s Lyman Spitzer Jr. led the Copernicus project. As far back as 1946, he had proposed a large “space telescope” to look at the universe from above the layers of Earth’s atmosphere. “Little did I know it then,” Weiler grins, “but my first boss was the father of the Hubble Space Telescope.”

During three years at Princeton, Weiler got to know the New Jersey Turnpike as he spent most of every month at Goddard, the site of the control room for Copernicus. By age 28, Weiler was managing 20 engineers and scientists. He watched as Spitzer struggled to get Hubble approved by Congress.

In 1978, Weiler accepted a job offer from NASA. One year later, he was chief astronomer at agency headquarters, which meant he was the lead Hubble scientist, working with people he regarded as “the kings and queens of astronomy.”

But the project was already troubled. Through the early 1980s, Weiler’s team grappled with technical problems and cost overruns as they fended off congressional efforts to kill the project.

He also helped supervise the creation of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore to coordinate research demands that would pour in from scientists around the world. This was the first effort to place such a large observatory in orbit to be run by astronomers on the ground and available to researchers on a time-share basis, as ground telescopes are.

During these turbulent times, Weiler met his future wife, a mathematician who was helping design Hubble’s data-archiving system. They would be married 18 years and have two children before their divorce. “Two type A’s. Two protons! I should have known,” Weiler says, throwing his hands in the air.

By 1983, the combination of pork-barrel politics, technical hurdles, and cost surprises led to a shakeup in Hubble’s management. NASA had developed a tendency to oversell and underfund projects, a dysfunction that would be exposed in January 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger blew apart after liftoff, killing seven astronauts.

Despite a trail of setbacks, Hubble’s launch day arrived in April 1990. NASA was churning out gee-whiz facts about the 12½-ton, 43-foot-long telescope named for Edwin P. Hubble, the Missouri-born astronomer who in the early 20th century established that the universe is expanding.

The telescope would provide at least a tenfold improvement in resolution, equal to the change when Galileo first looked through his “eyeglass” almost 400 years earlier. At the Hubble’s heart was the most optically precise mirror ever built. The telescope would see with such resolution that it could distinguish the two headlights on a car 3,000 miles away. To steady the telescope’s aim, engineers had developed a pointing system so precise that if it were a laser mounted on the US Capitol and fired at New York City, it could “hit a dime on the top of the World Trade Center.” And so on.

Astronomers suddenly found themselves in the spotlight. The land around the launch complex at Cape Canaveral was festive with tents and parties. Reporters from around the world lined up to talk to scientists who had never done interviews before. The morning before the launch, Weiler was on NBC’s Today show, standing on the network’s rooftop with a fragile model of Hubble that threatened to fly apart in the breeze as he was quizzed by Bryant Gumbel.

Little did he know that engineers had sent into space the smoothest, most precisely formed mirror ever ground by humans—but ground with the wrong shape, the equivalent of the wrong eyeglass prescription. A mistake in testing had left the concave curve of the main mirror, at its outer rim, too shallow by about one-fiftieth the diameter of a human hair.

After the launch, the team was unable to focus the telescope but for weeks couldn’t figure out why. Finally, in late spring, Weiler joined project leaders including a top optical expert at Goddard in anticipation of “the latest and greatest solution,” he recalls.

They huddled around the TV screen waiting for what had been billed as the first image with good focus. “The image came down, and it was the same old garbage,” says Weiler. He was struck by the look on the focusing engineer’s face: “That look said it all. It was the total abandonment of all hope.”

They had to tell the world. While polling the science team about what capabilities the Hubble had left, Weiler misunderstood Jim Westphal, the lead camera scientist. As a result, Weiler passed on erroneous information at the news conference—that all the camera’s scientific capability was lost. The situation was not that dire, but Weiler’s miscue inspired headlines such as one in the New York Post: pix nixed as hubble sees double.

“That was a day I’ll never forget,” Weiler says. “I still remember the suit I wore. I gave it to Goodwill.”

In hindsight, Weiler came to believe that NASA’s prelaunch hype represented one of the lessons of the Hubble experience: “Don’t assume success before success. Don’t open the Champagne too early.”

After the Hubble flaw was announced, Weiler’s briefings attracted dozens of reporters. There were congressional hearings where Maryland senator Barbara Mikulski pronounced the telescope a “techno-turkey.” And there was the cartoon in which Mr. Magoo was portrayed as the telescope’s inventor. “I had neighbors coming up to me in that period of 1990 to 1993 saying, ‘We’re really, really sorry you have to work on that disaster,’ ” Weiler remembers.

Once again there were moves to kill the project. The space agency was still staggering from the Challenger accident and a host of troubles afflicting its keystone project, the proposed space station. Money was scarce for other worthy projects. Now this. There were those who questioned whether NASA would survive.

Weiler found a silver lining. “The fact that we were a joke was a great service to the team,” Weiler says. The usually competing NASA fiefdoms pulled together: “Now we were on a mission to save not just the telescope but all of space science. It was all on the line.”

And there was a seed of salvation that Weiler had helped plant years earlier. In 1983, more than six years before the discovery of Hubble’s blurry vision, Weiler had sat at his headquarters desk to write a report chiding the telescope project managers, then based at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, for sacrificing long-term capabilities in favor of short-term economies.

In particular, he wrote, the team had neglected to set aside sufficient and timely funds for the concept that had helped sell the telescope in the first place—that shuttle astronauts would periodically refurbish it in orbit.

Weiler urged scientists to start building backup instruments and acquire parts that might be needed to solve problems that could occur in orbit. His paper concluded that one of the Hubble’s most important instruments would be its workhorse camera, and if there were money for only one replacement, it should be that.

“I feel uneasy saying this,” he had written, “but no matter how much good physics comes out of the [instruments], the general public will consider the [telescope] a loss if it does not produce early and continuing unique views of the universe”—what he described at one point as “pretty pictures.”

At a meeting about six weeks later, the telescope’s key scientists—the Space Telescope Science Working Group—approved Weiler’s proposal. There was dissent from higher NASA officials who didn’t think there was enough money. But, Weiler says, Princeton astrophysicist John Bahcall, a leading Hubble champion, sold the idea to Congress. And the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California started work on a second camera.

“Little did anybody know that what we were doing, and what John Bahcall did in Congress, would be so damn important,” Weiler says.

In June 1990, scientists figured out that they would be able to correct Hubble’s vision—in essence, give it new eyeglasses—using small relay mirrors built into the backup camera and into a separate apparatus known as CoStar.

In December 1993, during an 11-day mission with a global TV audience watching, astronauts performed a high-wire act featuring five choreographed spacewalks that accomplished the scientists’ wish list and then some. As the crew in space wrapped up its tour de force, a contractor at Goddard brought in some Champagne. Having learned his lesson, Weiler refused to drink any.

Just after midnight on December 20, 1993, the first picture from the refurbished telescope came back. Weiler and others once again huddled around a screen, this time at the institute in Baltimore. “Everybody was scared,” Weiler says. “We were almost 99 percent convinced that we had gotten the prescription right, but until you put on those new glasses, you never know.

“The two or three or four minutes that it took from the time the signal started to be put together on the spacecraft and then went through [a NASA relay satellite], down to White Sands [New Mexico] and back up to a domestic satellite, then back down to Goddard, then through a land line to the institute—that whole daisy chain of electrons and photons moving around, I swear it seemed like six years of my life . . . waiting for that screen to light up.”

The first thing he saw was a little dot that got brighter, Weiler recalls. “Then a whole bunch of other little dots started coming up, and more and more and more. The critical point was that they were little, and there were lots. . . . Not only had we gotten the focus right, but getting the focus right gave you the depth—the ability to see faint [objects]. People went crazy.”

That night Weiler drank the Champagne. He had arranged to have NASA there to film the moment of truth, whatever happened. The footage was a hit at the next press conference. Weiler says it seemed as if “some cosmic entity had flipped a relay, and suddenly things started going our way.”

Because tending Hubble had been one of NASA’s justifications for the high costs of putting humans in space, the astronauts had fixed more than a telescope. They had demonstrated that people in space have a role to play alongside robots, and they had rescued NASA’s credibility.

As he reminisces, Weiler takes down from his wall a framed color portrait of the galaxy M-100, a pinwheel of glowing blue. After that first repair job, NASA released “before” and “after” images of the galaxy, one blurry and one sharp. “M-100 will always have a special place in my heart,” he says.

Shuttle crews have returned to Hubble three times since 1993. What may be the telescope’s final phase opened on October 31, 2006, with another dramatic twist. In a news conference at Goddard, NASA administrator Michael Griffin announced a fifth high-stakes shuttle mission to rejuvenate the telescope, whose life-support systems were in decline after 16 years in space.

Griffin’s move reversed his predecessor’s unpopular decision to cancel the rescue, and it ended years of angst among Hubble supporters.

It was in late 2003, less than a year after the space shuttle Columbia had fallen out of the sky in burning pieces, that NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe had decided against the Hubble repair. The cancellation amounted to an admission that the shuttle program was unable to carry out what has been its most valuable contribution to society. Without the repairs, the telescope’s scientific capabilities would likely have died before this decade is out.

O’Keefe and others had cited astronaut safety as well as costs at a time when the shuttle fleet was grounded and struggling to recover from its second catastrophe in less than two decades. Still, some in the Hubble program had expressed surprise at the NASA brass’s animosity toward the telescope.

At a high-level meeting of policy-makers in December 2003, one of NASA’s top space-flight officials had dismissed the Hubble output as “just a bunch of pretty pictures,” according to a congressional source who was present. The source added, “I thought Ed Weiler was going to come out of his seat and punch the guy.”

Weiler confirms the account and says that what really got to him was an official’s comment that the public wouldn’t much care about the Hubble’s demise. “I told them this one will lead to every kindergarten student in the country writing their congressman.”

Sure enough, after the decision to cancel the mission was reported in the Washington Post, astronomers, engineers, a National Academy of Sciences panel, key members of Congress, and eventually schoolchildren protested. Senator Mikulski, whose state includes both key Hubble facilities, recalls that she urged O’Keefe to get a second opinion, this time “from the engineers, not the accountants.”

The sentiments of many astronauts were reflected in a comment by John Grunsfeld, now scheduled to make his third visit to Hubble: “I feel like a mission to Hubble is worth risking my life for.”

During this period, Weiler—then still NASA’s chief of space science—found himself ironically forced to play loyal lieutenant, acting to tamp down the Save Hubble movement and stirring up animosities along the way. Weiler says of those tensions, “When you work for government, you’ve got to support your boss or you’ve got to quit.”

He found himself aligned against such colleagues as Steve Beckwith, then director of the Space Telescope Science Institute and one of the most outspoken proponents of the rescue campaign. Beckwith ultimately quit his post for fear his public opposition to the official NASA line would become harmful to the Hubble program.

The dispute was “like [the battle of] Troy,” he says of the career upheavals it triggered. “All the kings and heroes died.” But, he adds, the Hubble partisans “always basically considered Ed a force for good. He’s not just a bureaucrat. He cares about the science. Fighting against us was not where his real heart was.”

Weiler also knew that engineers had come up with the idea of sending a robot instead of astronauts to repair Hubble. “I thought it had a chance” if Hubble advocates supported it, Weiler says. “I was looking for whatever way I could to keep the Hubble going.”

The approach worked, he says.

In February 2005, O’Keefe left NASA. After about a year of studies on the robotic alternative, incoming boss Michael Griffin canceled that effort, believing it unlikely to work. Griffin said he hoped to reinstate the astronaut mission if the shuttles, when they returned to flight, demonstrated that they could meet the more rigorous safety requirements established after the Columbia accident.

Weiler, wearing a Cheshire-cat smile, introduced Griffin last October at a press conference at Goddard, where the NASA chief outlined the steps that had gotten him to “yes” on the Hubble rescue.

Senator Mikulski cited the findings of an independent science panel that “Hubble has been the greatest telescope since Galileo invented the first one.” The telescope was so beloved, she noted, that schoolchildren had collected money for it and sent it questions like “Have you seen God?” and “Can you find my cat?”

Hubble has cost about $6 billion, not counting shuttle launches, officials say. Assuming the repair flight takes off on schedule, in September 2008, that mission will cost about $900 million, including the six years spent on instrument construction and other preparation and shuttle costs. The delays, and the abortive robot study, added as much as $150 million to the typical Hubble mission cost, according to Hubble program manager Preston Burch.

Goddard is operating some 35 orbiting satellites as well as building and testing other space hardware. One of its scientists, John Mather, was a corecipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize for physics for studies of the origin of the universe. But for a long time, Hubble has been Goddard’s top celebrity.

In varying states of readiness in clean rooms, labs, and test facilities near Weiler’s office on the Space Flight Center’s sprawling Greenbelt grounds are Hubble replacement parts and research instruments, not to mention a workforce of 900 that spent years in limbo as policy-makers wrestled over Hubble’s fate. Now the team is preparing hardware and procedures for the ride to orbit aboard the shuttle Discovery.

The Discovery crew of seven are in training at Johnson Space Center in Houston with visits to Goddard. Theirs will be the final visit to Hubble before the shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2010. Griffin has said it’s possible that, in the next decade, another NASA chief might send a next-generation spacecraft to make yet another life-extending house call to the telescope.

After chasing down Hubble some 350 statute miles above Earth, the spacewalkers will try to complete a long list of jobs that includes installing six new batteries (to provide reserve power when the solar-powered observatory passes through Earth’s shadow on each orbit), six new gyroscopes (to steady the telescope’s motion), and a new guidance sensor to help the telescope lock onto targets.

The Goddard team has devised strategies they hope will keep the telescope operating until the astronauts can get there. (The next several flights are focused on construction of the International Space Station, and shuttle launch dates often slip.) The Hubble’s gyroscopes are its crucial life-limiting factor, Burch notes. Engineers have written software that enables Hubble to provide good science results with only two gyroscopes out of six operating, a mode that Burch estimates will carry them through 2008 and maybe into 2009.

The 20-year-old rechargeable batteries are another concern. “Those, we start worrying about around mid 2009 to 2010,” says Weiler. “If we don’t do a servicing mission by the time the batteries go, Hubble is lost forever. The heaters turn off. The optical system is ruined.”

In addition to prolonging Hubble’s life, the astronauts hope to install $200 million worth of new science instruments. But the biggest challenge, by all accounts, will be fixing a broken onboard spectrometer, which measures the properties of light. The spacesuited astronauts must remove 111 noncaptive screws that hold a cover on the broken spectrometer, replace a circuit board with tricky locks, and do it all pretty fast “in zero G with big clunky space gloves,” says Burch. “We don’t want the screws floating around inside the Hubble focal plane assembly, nor do we want them floating around in orbit around Hubble and potentially clobbering the space shuttle.”

To succeed, the astronauts must perform with almost the efficiency of an auto racetrack crew “when the car roars into the pit,” says Burch, who has consulted with a NASCAR expert.

This goal grew more complicated in January, when an electrical malfunction forced the Hubble’s primary camera to shut down. The loss is a disappointment to many astronomers even though a new camera is set to be installed on the next servicing mission. Engineers at Goddard have come up with several ways to fix the broken camera, Weiler says, but only if mission managers can accommodate the extra astronaut workload.

With or without the repair, engineers say the next round of hardhat derring-do should keep the telescope working until at least 2013.

Although ground-based observatories are also growing more sophisticated, they “will not be able to compete with Hubble in terms of . . . sharpness of vision” in optical wavelengths, says astrophysicist Mario Livio, of the Space Telescope Science Institute, and they can’t compete at all in the ultraviolet, because the atmosphere blocks those wavelengths. Rather than competing, though, Hubble users often work in concert with other observatories in space and on the ground.

Scientists expect the born-again Hubble to shed light on some of the most perplexing mysteries in astronomy, including the elusive nature of the “dark” energy and matter that appear to make up most of the known universe.

The recent revolution in human conception of the universe has done away with the old sense of a benign firmament filled with twinkling lights. In its place looms a forbidding realm of surreal violence and weirdness. Astronomers have perplexing evidence that only about 4 percent of all known creation is made up of “normal” matter that we can see such as planets, stars, dogs, cats, and iPods. Some 23 percent consists of unknown “dark matter,” which reveals itself through its gravitational properties but resists direct detection. And the rest—73 percent of everything there is—consists of the dark energy that appears to be accelerating the rate at which galaxies fly apart.

But scientists are fond of saying that the Hubble’s most interesting results will likely be those that nobody predicted.

And assuming the refurbished telescope works for at least five years, Weiler says there is a good chance astronomers will enjoy the bonus of having both the Hubble and its much larger successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, observing the cosmos simultaneously. Named after the NASA chief who led the effort to land men on the moon in the 1960s, the Webb telescope is on track for launch in 2013.

Weiler insists he is as big a “Hubble hugger” as anyone, but he doesn’t wax overly sentimental about it. Under his supervision, the Webb project has incorporated the painful lessons of Hubble, Weiler says, investing resources up front to avoid technical problems later: “We had spent peanuts on technology and development in the early years of Hubble, and we paid dearly for it. . . . We are doing the exact opposite on JW.”

Although he runs 1½ miles every day, water-skis on the South River on the Chesapeake Bay, and feels “more healthy and alive now than I did in my twenties,” Weiler says he cannot know if he’ll be around to witness the Hubble’s final flaming descent.

Experts estimate that whether or not it goes scientifically dormant, the telescope is in no danger of falling out of orbit until at least 2020. The Discovery crew plans to place a ring mechanism on Hubble’s outer surface to make it easier for future spacecraft to attach themselves, particularly the one that eventually must guide the telescope’s plummeting remains away from cities and safely into the sea.

Weiler admits to one regret about Hubble’s eventual demise. Before the Columbia accident, NASA was considering a plan to return the telescope to Earth the same way it went up—intact, aboard a shuttle. “I would have loved, at the end of my career, to walk into the Air and Space Museum and see the real Hubble Space Telescope, not a cardboard model. Being able to take your grandchildren to it and say this traveled 2½ billion miles in space, it’s seen further than anything before it—that could be inspiring."

 

Kathy Sawyer covered space science for the Washington Post for 17 years, beginning with the 1986 Challenger accident. She is the author of The Rock From Mars, published last year by Random House.

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