History Timeline 1990's

President Bush with Gulf War troops. Courtesy National Archives. Right: New York Stock Exchange in 1921 by Irving Underhill, Courtesy Library of Congress.

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U.S. Timeline - The 1990s

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  • Timeline

  • 1990 - Detail

    April 24, 1990 - The Hubble Telescope is placed into orbit by the United States Space Shuttle Discovery. One month later, the telescope becomes operational.

    Hubble Telescope

    The Hubble Telescope was, and is, an amazing piece of equipment, developed over decades, and named in honor of legendary astronomer Edwin Hubble. It was launched from the Space Shuttle Discovery on Mission STS-31. This would be the start of an amazing journey, now over thirty years old, with advancements made over five servicing missions to enhance its capacity.

    But while the story of its launch and orbit provides the present to its date in 1990, it is the tale of the structure and build of a telescope that started with folks like Copernicus and moved to those of Hubble's generation. Until 1924, most astronomers believed that there was only one galaxy, our own Milky Way. But Edwin Hubble, using a 100 inch Hooker Telescope from Los Angeles, discovered that there were others beyond our own. Galaxies that were moving away from each other and expanding. What?

    But these discoveries only pushed astronomers, as far back as 1923, to believe that if a space telescope could be launched, the view into the heavens would be much clearer without earth's atmosphere obscuring its view. Once space became possible, post the Soviet launch of Sputnik, NASA was born in 1958, and would launch two Orbital Astronomical Observatories, leading the way to larger and more powerful telescopes in space.

    Hubble is Born

    Lyman Spitzer had been touting a large space telescope since 1946, and once the possibilities became reality, continued to urge a plan to launch. The National Academy of Sciences approved the Large Space Telescope program in 1969. Oddly, when Neil Armstrong trundled across the moon in 1969, funding and interest in NASA's other projects began to dwindle. However, once the Space Shuttle program was conceived, then launched by NASA and its contractors, the possibility grew again. If a Large Space Telescope had the lifespan of fifteen years, it would need missions to repair and/or replace. A shuttle would provide that vehicle.

    Congress approved funding for the Large Space Telescope on October 1, 1977, with the European Space Agency contributing fifteen percent of its cost. The development of this sophisticated telescope would involve the entire spectrum of NASA's facilities and outside contractors. From the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama in cooperation with Perkin-Elmer Corporation to develop the Optical Telescope Assembly and the Fine Guidance Sensors, and Lockheed Missiles and Space Company to build the spacecraft and systems module. From Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, there was development of the scientific instruments.

    Space Shuttle support would be handled at Johnson Space Center in Texas and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In all, twelve states and twenty-one nations had a piece of its design and construction. There were, however, constant delays. An initial launch date of 1983, the same year it was named after Edwin Hubble, was pushed back to 1986. However, the Challenger disaster grounded all shuttles for two years after its tragedy, pushing back the Hubble mission.

    On April 24, 1990, Space Shuttle Discovery blasted off from earth with the Hubble Telescope inside. The next day, it was placed into orbit from the bay of the shuttle.

    Hubble's History in Space

    It was an inauspicious debut once the telescope became operational one month later on May 20, 1990. The first images of the stars were out of focus; there were cartoons and criticisms in the press about the cost and its astigmatic images. It was discovered to be a mirror flaw, off by less than the width of a hair. There were temporary fixes that would allow the instruments on the telescope to adjust to clarity. Clarity that was fifty percent better than ground telescopes. NASA was already at work on a better camera that would take into account that flaw, Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. It would be launched on December 1993.

    The list of Hubble's discoveries is too large to mention in its entirety, but they have advanced the undestanding of the galaxies in exponential ways. On August 29, 1990, the Supernova 1987A Ring was filmed. In 1991, the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to our own, was measured; its distance from us, 169,000 light years away. In May 1991, photos of Jupiter were captured. Since then, suspected black holes have been discovered, star Eta Carinae, 150 times as large as our sun, unstable, and four million times brighter, was studied in 1994, and proof of Dark Matter was observed in 2006.

    There have been four other servicing missions, the last in 2009. Despite an initial shelf life of fifteen years, the Hubble Telescope continues to provide, thirty years later, amazing pictures of the galaxies of our universe. There have been more than one and one half million observations. No more servicing missions are scheduled, but scientists on the ground continue to reep the benefits of the spacecraft. From its platform in the sky six hundred kilometers above earth, Hubble's advanced features can now see light five times sharper than the most advanced ground telescopes.

    Photo above: Hubble Space Telescope at the moment of release, Mission STS-31, April 25, 1990, NASA. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Below: Hubble Telescopes from Space Shuttle Atlantis, 2009, Crew of STS-125. Courtesy NASA via Wikipedia Commons. Source: NASA; esahubble.org; Wikipedia Commons.

    Hubble Telescope

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