Hubble's outgoing director recalls the highs and lows

December 08, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

Riccardo Giacconi, a 61-year-old pioneer in X-ray astronomy, has shepherded the Baltimore institute that directs research with the Hubble Space Telescope through frustrating launch delays, the discovery of embarrassing technical flaws and finally, some headline-making discoveries.

By the end of this month, he will leave the Space Telescope Science Institute to become director-general of the European Southern Observatory, a multinational group building the Very Large Telescope Observatory in Chile's Atacama Desert. He became the first director of the institute, on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University, in 1981.

Despite the Hubble's misshapen mirror and other technical problems, Dr. Giacconi believes the $2.1 billion orbiting telescope has already contributed significantly to astronomy. And he thinks it is well worth fixing during a planned December 1993 repair mission by space shuttle astronauts.

QUESTION: Is your departure related to the Hubble's problems?

ANSWER: Not at all. In fact, I feel like I can leave now because Hubble is in good shape. I've been director now for 12 years. It seems too long. We just completed negotiations with NASA for a five-year renewal [of its agreement to pay for operating] the institute. The progress toward this repair mission is very good. So I felt I could leave it in very good shape.

I have great satisfaction in building up this institution. It was a great opportunity for me, and it's time for somebody younger to come and pick up the load, which has been very considerable.

Q.: Have Hubble's flaws hurt public support for astronomy, for NASA and for "Big Science" projects in general?

A.: Without question, yes. There has been tremendous bad publicity.

But the Hubble problems are not really Hubble problems. They are problems of the space program. The fact that we decided on space shuttle years ago as a means of transportation is at the root of many of the Hubble problems.

We were supposed to have very easy transportation up and down -- 60 flights a year of the shuttle, which were going to cost nothing. So the idea was to put together a very expensive one-shot [space telescope] affair and to maintain it over a long time.

It turns out the servicing is more expensive than replacement, which therefore is crazy.

That led to a whole philosophy of construction in which perhaps less care was taken by [the telescope's] manufacturers than if it couldn't be fixed in orbit.

When the military sends up spy satellites, they don't build [just] one. That would be crazy. If it doesn't work, you're sunk. So you build a fleet. Also when you build them all together, they don't cost quite as much.

We were prevented from building more than one Hubble because the one instrument was going to be serviced, refurbished and so forth.

That basic decision led to many, many problems in the space program [with the Hubble and other satellites]. It [the dependence on the shuttle] has now been abandoned. No longer do we have programs of that type.

Don't forget this: Space Telescope is in orbit. It is a uniquely powerful telescope. So when I am asked, 'Do you want to fix it,' I say, 'Of course.'

The fact that we made mistakes doesn't mean it is not an extremely valuable observatory.

Q.: Will the new generation of huge ground-based telescopes, armed with computer-aided optics that help compensate for the blurring effect of the atmosphere, make Hubble obsolete?

A.: No. There will be complementary type of programs. From the ground, you absolutely cannot detect things in the ultraviolet, [a part of the light spectrum invisible to the naked eye. The Earth's atmosphere screens out almost all ultraviolet light.]

One of the most important discoveries that was made with the Hubble couldn't have been seen except in the ultraviolet. Also, it turns out these computer-aided techniques normally only work for very bright objects.

Hubble won't have the kind of overwhelming superiority in all fields of astronomy it was supposed to have, had it flown much earlier on.

On the other hand, none of these large telescopes exists yet. Until they really come on line and really become effective, the Space Telescope will churn away at a lot of science.

Q: Astronauts say they have a lot of work to do during the repair mission. Is the mission too ambitious?

A: Ask NASA. I was talking to the guy in charge of putting up the Space Station. That program is to put up 17 shuttle flights, and has eight six-hour EVAs (extra-vehicular activities, or spacewalks) per flight.

We only need four. So, if we can't do Space Telescope, we surely can't do the space station.

I said to this guy, 'Wait a minute, they're giving me so much trouble for four six-hour EVAs, how come you're getting eight with no trouble at all?'

Q.: What has been the Hubble's most important discovery so far?

A.: There have been so many. I just remember the last two that have been announced.

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