Aerospace: Ed Weiler

The Hubble Telescope's Best Friend

By Eric Levin|Sunday, November 09, 2003
RELATED TAGS: TELESCOPES

Ed Weiler, NASA’s chief of space science, has gotten used to wearing lapel pins. Commemorative pins are a ubiquitous part of the space agency’s culture-contractors hand out these mementos like cigars before every launch, and multiyear missions earn serial souvenirs.

After 25 years, Weiler has many more pins than he has lapels. So he divides the real estate this way: left lapel available for the mission pin of the moment, right lapel sacrosanct, reserved for his Hubble Space Telescope pin, a rare silver one, given out almost two decades ago, before the Hubble was even named Hubble. At the time it was simply the most complicated telescope ever designed, not the most important one. But all that has changed.

“I’ll never take off my Hubble pin,” he says. “I’ve never been to a launch without it.”

Weiler is a big part of why the Hubble is alive and well today. A spectroscopist by training, he served as the Hubble’s chief scientist from 1979 until 1998. During the 1980s, when the program was plagued by technical challenges, delays, and cost increases, he defended the imperiled concept that the scientific instruments on board should be regularly upgraded and replaced. The memo he wrote in 1983, proposing that NASA build a backup wide-field/planetary camera, proved prescient in 1990, when it was discovered that the telescope had been launched with a flaw in its primary mirror. In 1993 astronauts brought the backup camera with corrective optics to the telescope and installed them in a legendary feat of spacefaring. The fixes worked.

Photograph by Amanda Friedman

Ed Weiler was chief scientist for the Hubble (model below) from 1979 to 1998. Colleagues credit him with the determination and spirit that kept them going as they struggled to fix the flaw that almost crippled the telescope.

“We went from being called a national disgrace, a national screwup, to being an icon of American know-how and technology,” Weiler says. “It’s been quite a roller-coaster ride.”

A shiny aluminum cylinder about the size of a school bus, flanked on either side by solar-power arrays that look like rectangular elephant ears, the Hubble is now sailing toward completion of its 14th year in orbit. Despite its housekeeping chores, such as the time-consuming business of pointing itself at new targets, called slewing, and repointing itself every 45 minutes or so when Earth and other bodies block the field of view, the Hubble manages to do science nearly 50 percent of the time-making it one of the most efficient telescopes ever to operate.

Its yield has been extraordinary. As of December 31, 2002, data and images hoovered by the Hubble had given rise to 3,577 papers in refereed journals. According to Bruce Margon, the associate director for science at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which oversees Hubble operations, 8 percent of all papers published in the top five astronomy journals in 2002 were based on Hubble results-more than twice as many as any ground-based telescope. “I find that almost dizzying,” Margon says. “No NASA program has ever generated this many papers or become more productive every year.”

One reason is that the Hubble is one of the most collaborative scientific enterprises ever. Ground-based telescopes often follow up on Hubble’s sightings, as does the Chandra X-ray Observatory, along with other orbiting telescopes. And the Hubble’s ability to observe in parts of the infrared and ultraviolet as well as in the visible spectrum has tended to break down long-standing walls between astronomical disciplines. “We’re no longer optical astronomers or X-ray astronomers or gamma-ray astronomers,” says John Bahcall, a professor of natural sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and a key member of the group that helped plan the telescope in the 1970s. “Now we’re all just astronomers. Everybody realizes you have to use all the wavelengths and all the tools to answer the big questions. Hubble has changed the way we practice astronomy.”

It has even changed the way we understand the cosmos. “Before Hubble, people conjectured that galaxies evolved with time,” says C. Robert O’Dell, professor of astrophysics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and, as project scientist at the Marshall Space Flight Center from 1972 to 1983, a major figure in the early development of the telescope. “Hubble has allowed one to actually see those changes.” Quasars, for instance, turn out to be a kind of smoking gun. Unimaginably powerful sources of radio emissions, brighter than entire galaxies, quasars were initially viewed as mysterious objects found billions of light-years from us but unknown in our own galactic neighborhood. Were they just oddities, loners in the cosmos? Hubble images showed, on the contrary, that quasars always occur at the cores of distant galaxies and derive their energy from material being sucked into black holes that lie even deeper within the galactic centers. Which is to say that galaxies billions of years ago were different from what they are now.

“The name of the game is nail things down,” says O’Dell. “And that’s what Hubble has really done.”

Hubble also confirmed that planets, like quasars, form as the result of normal, not fluky, processes. Stars condense from huge clouds of swirling interstellar gas. Hubble has shown that not all the swirling material is drawn into the star. Some of it winds up orbiting the newborn star. “That disk of material that’s left behind is the material from which planets can form,” O’Dell says. “Before Hubble, we had spectroscopic and photometric evidence. But when you actually see these disks going around these nascent stars, then it all becomes believable. In the case of our sun, if you look at the distribution of planets across the sky, you see they’re all in the same plane. That’s because they came from the same disk of material left behind as this cloud that was forming the sun was collapsing.”

In 1929, when Edwin P. Hubble announced his discovery of the expansion of the universe, its rate—known as the Hubble constant—could only be estimated. The telescope named for him has provided more accurate measurements of the constant, resulting in a more reliable estimate of the age of the universe-between 13 billion and 14 billion years.

Triumph tends to look inevitable in retrospect. It isn’t, of course, and the Hubble’s development from pipe dream to reality was an especially long and bumpy ride. The father of the space telescope, astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer, first proposed the idea in 1946, championed it in the halls of Congress in the 1970s, and lived to conduct research with it before his death in 1997. The advantages of a space-based observatory were clear from the start: The atmospheric turbulence that blurs terrestrial telescopes would be surmounted, and parts of the spectrum that are absorbed by the atmosphere would become visible. Beginning in the 1960s, the encouraging results of feasibility studies gave the idea momentum, although there were also a few prominent naysayers who expressed doubt that a space telescope could ever be stabilized well enough to produce decent results.

The 1970s played out like a tag-team match between Congress, NASA, and the astronomical community. Funds were granted, funds were cut off; astronomers lobbied, Congress reconsidered; NASA scaled down, President Carter approved. Then came the turf wars—both within NASA and between NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute that astronomers had insisted be set up to manage the science.

Meanwhile, in 1976, a young Ph.D. named Edward J. Weiler landed his first job, as a researcher for Lyman Spitzer, who was chairman of the astronomy department at Princeton. As a child, Weiler had scrambled out of bed before dawn to watch Alan Shepard and John Glenn blast off. Equipped with a cardboard telescope that his father, a steelworker, bought him, Weiler decided, at age 13, that he “wanted to go to Northwestern, be an astronomer, and work for NASA.” He was already showing signs of decisiveness.

Spitzer put Weiler to work on Copernicus, an early NASA satellite observatory for which he was principal scientist. Before long, Weiler was director of operations for the observatory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. In 1978 Nancy Roman, the first chief scientist for what was then called the Space Telescope and NASA’s first chief of astronomy, offered Weiler a job. The 29-year-old found himself at a crossroads.

“I was working for Lyman, who was a great scientist, a great thinker, a visionary,” Weiler recalls. “I was publishing three to five papers a year. That’s pretty good. But I had to ask myself: ‘Am I ever going to be at the level of Lyman Spitzer?’ Probably not. So when I was offered the job at NASA, which was a lifelong dream anyway, I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll have more impact on the field by, instead of doing the research, enabling the research to be done by other people.’”

In 1979 Roman wanted to retire and recommended that Weiler succeed her. “He was enthusiastic, levelheaded, and a steady worker,” she says. “I felt quite comfortable leaving the program in his hands.”

Weiler quickly discovered that being chief scientist was “a refereeing job,” and there were plenty of disputes to referee. Growing up in Chicago, he had held his own as a Cubs fan in a White Sox neighborhood, so he didn’t shy from conflict. Weiler has a round, boyish face, but there’s pugnacity in his jaw, penetration in his blue eyes, and no nonsense in his plain-spoken Midwestern manner. Remarks Giovanni Fazio, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, “There’s no wishy-washy about that guy.”

He needed every bit of that fierce determination. “If you wanted to figure out how to really screw up the management of something, you’d duplicate the Hubble program,” Weiler says. “We had no prime contractor. Perkin-Elmer [which made the optical telescope assembly] and Lockheed [which made the spacecraft] were co-primes. Goddard was responsible for the scientific instruments and operations. Marshall [Space Flight Center] was responsible for development. It was hard to figure out who was in charge on any given day. There were a lot of tensions.”

Weiler’s make-or-break moment came shortly after the launch, in April 1990. The discovery that the 2.4-meter primary mirror suffered from a spherical aberration—the result of a 1.3-millimeter measuring error during testing—“shattered the dreams of many people,” John Bahcall says. Very simply, the pictures were blurry. Weiler became NASA’s main spokesperson at the pressure-packed daily press conferences. “The message I kept giving was, ‘Yeah, we screwed up, but we’ve got a way to fix it, and we’re going to do it by December of 1993,’” Weiler says. “Of course, nobody believed us because Hubble didn’t have a good record of being on cost or on schedule for anything. But the hell of it is, we did it.

“It was an incredible team effort. For once, it didn’t matter whether you wore a Johnson Space Center badge or a Hubble badge or a headquarters badge. It was one team.”

On late-night TV, the Hubble was being compared to Mister Magoo, even though it managed to produce valuable science before shuttle astronauts installed the corrective optics and backup camera. “Ed insisted above all else that we be straightforward and honest about what we knew, and he saw us through those terrible times when people were making fun of us,” says Bahcall. “Ed helped us keep our sanity and keep focused on what had to be done.”

Since the restoration in 1993 and the plug-in of more advanced new instruments and cameras on three later shuttle missions, Hubble has exceeded all expectations. In 1996 it produced the deepest image of the cosmos ever recorded. The Hubble Deep Field image, as it was called, penetrated as many as 13 billion years into the past—the light it recorded had been traveling that long—to assemble a picture of the universe when it was only about 1 billion years old.

“We pushed Hubble to limits we never even dreamed possible,” Weiler says. Hubble’s limit was supposed to be 2010, when NASA planned to bring the telescope back to Earth. However, this summer a committee of experts recommended that Hubble compete with other projects for an instrument upgrade that could keep it up and running for a few more years.

For Weiler, Hubble’s body of work “raises not just a scientific question but a fundamental human question. Are we alone in the vast universe?” Don’t bet on it. In the last 500 years, he notes, “we arrogant humans” have found that Earth isn’t the center of the universe—nor is the sun, nor is our galaxy. Now our solar system has been revealed to be just one of many.

“What’s the last crumb on the plate of human arrogance?” Weiler asks. “Obviously, that we’re the only life in the universe. I think in the 21st century we are going to prove otherwise.”

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