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Book Review:
The Hubble Wars
Copyright (c) 1998 by Richard Tyndall (rtyndall @

The Hubble Wars
by Eric J. Chaisson
Published by Harper Collins 1994
Don't let the publicataion date fool you. The main time line of this book is during and after the 1990 launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Five years of journals (starting around 1987) kept by the author, (astrophysicist Chaisson) was the source material for this book. His job as a senior scientist on the HST project (at the Space Telescope Science Institute) provided him with an ultimate insider viewpoint.

The major portion of the book details the troubles and triumphs of the HST starting on the day it deployed its solar panels 380 miles above the earth. (Solar panels that wobbled HST so badly, any star lock is quickly lost whenever terminator exit re-heated the panels).

Amazingly, a lot of problems had started long before the launch. There were some scientist who didn't want 'any' pictures from Hubble to be released to the public! They feared being beaten out of a big discovery by some taxpayer using a plastic ruler on a picture in a newspaper.. Meanwhile, NASA managers who had super-hyped Hubble before the launch, didn't even have a plan to release anything into the public domain. Caught flatfooted at a press conference, NASA managers started dropping the ball so badly, they went into a PR death spiral they couldn't seem to recover from.

A good technical overview of the HST is covered, along with many of the technical details pertaining to the operation of the HST science instruments and how poor engineering, QC and mismanagement during manufacturing adversely effected telescope function.

Would you believe that anyone would use old leftover gyroscopes on a multi-Billion-dollar spacecraft? (Leftover from International UV Explorer. Four were known to have failed before the HST was launched). Of course these (15 year old) gyros were well tested. Actually they were tested for 70,000 hours (about 8 years) before installation in the HST.. (Is that like buying a new BMW with 70k miles already on the engine)?

The whole fiasco of over-grinding the edge of the main reflector is explained (spherical aberration) in detail. Also explained is how the loss sensitivity panicked NASA management into a premature announcement to the world that HST was DOA.

Guess how many millions of dollars of extra Bonus was awarded by NASA (for doing such a good & on time job) to the contractor who took so long to made the defective main reflector? (After massive cost overruns). (Don't read this chapter if you have high blood pressure).

It took a lot of good people working hard (and fighting NASA at the same time) to get some (amazing) pictures down-loaded to show that HST was indeed working far better than any ground based telescope.

The last section is devoted to critically examining the results of the very expensive 'Fix' implemented (via space shuttle) in the late fall of 1993. The positive and negative effects of the tradeoffs that were made to regain telescope sensitivity are explained.

Eric Chaisson's teaching background enables him to communicate complex ideas with ease. Another of his books, Astronomy Today is the nation's most widely used astronomy textbook. I've decided to give "The Hubble Wars" four stars. It kept my interest and explained technical issues in a way I could easily follow. I admire Chaisson for his candor. He had the guts to tell the real nitty gritty inside story of Hubble. There are a lot of people who (mostly NASA employees, subcontractors and some astronomers who made a lot of dumb mistakes) will not like how this book depicts them.

I think we should all learn from our mistakes. I wish that all the folks who are involved in new space projects (and our leaders in Washington) would read this book before they spent another dime of my money.

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