America’s space agency isn’t just about space.Read More
Space offers an unparalleled vantage point for viewing Earth. Only by backing away from our planet can we truly see our tenuous life and how closely related we are. Only from space can we obtain the global data we need to unravel the mysteries of our home planet.Read More
Sometime in this century, people will be flying autonomous aircraft—the equivalent of the self-driving car. Personal air vehicles, perhaps powered by electric batteries, can help relieve our overcrowded airports, save land, and minimize emissions.Read More
Government missions actually work best in areas of high uncertainty, such as space. Failures not only get spread throughout society, where they can be absorbed without shock to a particular sector or system; those “failures” often turn into business successes. The seeming wastefulness of NASA got encapsulated in an urban legend about the so-called space pen.Read More
A new tool leads to new knowledge, which leads to a new tool. Over time, the cycle speeds up, first with a burst of creativity in Asia; then with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Age in Europe; leading up to the twentieth century and the invention of the airplane, transistor, and silicon chip. All of these inventions depended on the work of scientists. In turn, the scientists depended on increasingly sophisticated laboratory and field equipment. Throughout the 1900s, as the cycle spun faster and faster, the demand grew for ever more sophisticated equipment.Read More
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.)