email a friend iconprinter friendly iconHubble III
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Hubble is Galileo's telescope flung into a Keplerian orbit, and if these two early scientists came back to life today, I expect they would be impressed less by its technological sophistication than by its potential to bring things to light that challenge old ideas—and to publish them on the Internet, science having always been about making knowledge available. That was certainly the attitude of Lyman Spitzer, Jr., the astrophysicist and alpinist who proposed putting a large astronomical telescope in orbit in 1946, nearly a half century before Hubble was launched and long before many of the innovations it relies upon—microprocessors, digital imaging and communications systems, the space shuttle—yet existed. Spitzer stressed that it would serve not just to test and refine existing ideas, but also to spark entirely new ones. "The chief contribution of such a radically new and more powerful instrument," he predicted, "would be, not to supplement our present ideas of the universe we live in, but rather to uncover new phenomena not yet imagined, and perhaps to modify profoundly our basic concepts of space and time."

Selling a billion-dollar project with hand-waving promises that it would alter our basic conceptions of the universe could not have been easy. But Spitzer persisted, lobbying Congress for years while reassuring his fellow scientists that the job could be done without underfunding traditional ground-based astronomy. Ultimately he prevailed, lived to see Hubble fly, and was working in his Princeton office with Hubble data on March 31, 1997, hours before he died suddenly at home that night, at the age of 82. His dream, "that a large space telescope would revolutionize astronomy and might well be launched in my lifetime," had come true. His prophecy that it might alter our conceptions of space and time was fulfilled as well—in ways far more remarkable than anyone could have anticipated.

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