The Day They Tried to Shut Down Hubble

The Hubble Telescope, with its eight-foot mirror and instruments measuring visible, infrared, and ultraviolet light, has punched above its considerable weight. Operating in low Earth orbit about 350 miles above the distorting atmosphere, Hubble has produced more data and photographs (not to mention images of gas clouds and star clusters that amount to art) than the telescope’s creators could have imagined. Scientists have used its observations to measure the universe’s rate of expansion.

Eventually, Hubble came to the end of its productive life, and its control systems began to fail. To fix the problems and extend the telescope’s lifespan would mean risking the lives of astronauts. The 2003 disaster with the Columbia Space Shuttle, in which all seven crew members died on re-entry, made us all the more cautious about the risk. We decided to shut Hubble down. And then came a huge outcry, not just among scientists but from the general public. NASA Chief Sean O’Keefe began receiving 400 emails a day from “Hubble Huggers”; ABC news reported that “thousands” of schoolchildren wrote letters.

Senator Barbara Mikulski led the opposition in Congress, and Representative Mark Udall introduced legislation requiring an independent panel of experts to look into the matter. The National Academy of Sciences piled on with criticism of the decision, leading to the resignation of an important NASA administrator.

The agency soon relented and in 2009 sent up a crew to repair the equipment and replace its systems—including a UV instrument 35 times as sensitive as its predecessor. The astronauts completed the job in two spacewalks, and to this day Hubble is going strong. Some experts think the telescope could be bringing back images of deep space into 2030 and maybe beyond. (Note the critical role of astronauts and robots working together for the biggest bang for the buck.)

The telescope’s fan base also remains strong; its Facebook page has more than two million likes, and more than 1.5 million are following it on Instagram.