Patrick Moore reports on the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope

Off at last

By Patrick Moore

This article was first published in the June 1990 issue of Astronomy Now

The watchers: the Astronomer Royal (Professor Sir Francis Graham-Smith) on the left; behind him Professor Alec Boksenberg, Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory; next to Professor Boksenberg, Professor Mike Disney; and to the lower right, myself.

The Hubble Space Telescope – one of the most ambitious experiments ever attempted in the story of space research – has had a decidedly chequered history. It should have been launched years ago but there were inevitable delays, and then came the Challenger disaster which through the entire space programme into chaos. In a way, the long delay was beneficial; it meant that parts of the telescope could be updated, but there were times when its makers must have doubted whether it would ever be launched at all.

When the date was given – 1990 April 10 – there was tremendous excitement and the atmosphere at Cape Canaveral was tense. NASA had invited a large group of people, and of course many of those who had been concerned in the planning and making of the telescope were there. I was privileged to be a guest on behalf of British Aerospace – and remember, British technology is very much to the fore; quite apart from a major role in the Faint Object Camera, the solar panels were built by British Aerospace Bristol, and if they had failed to work the entire telescope would have been useless.

Even before sunrise we assembled at the launching ground. There, in the distance across the water, was the Shuttle Discovery, in its launching pad; it was impressive even under the lights, and as the Sun rose it was even more so. They had been doubts about the weather – thunderstorms were threatened – but by the time we were in our viewing positions the situation had improved, and there seemed no reason why the launch should not proceed according to schedule.

NASA organizes these events amazingly well from the publicity as well as the scientific point of view, and we were kept fully informed. Count-down went on and there was a general air of optimism. I was in a group consisting of the Astronomer Royal, Professor Alec Boksenberg, Professor Mike Disney – who has been so closely concerned with the telescope – and one or two others; as the countdown proceeded, tension grew. Half an hour to go – and still all was well. Then came a ‘hold’, which almost always happens, but the commentator assured us that as far as could be ascertained, ‘all was go’.

Count-down resumed and we made sure that our cameras were at the ‘ready’. And then, with only four minutes remaining, there was another, unexpected ‘hold’. We waited; what could have gone wrong? We soon knew. A valve in one of the four propulsion units had failed to close as it ought to have done. The fault was probably minor, but after Challenger no risks can be taken, and within another couple of minutes we knew the worst. The launch had been called off.

Needless to say, the was a tremendous sense of anti-climax – and yet we all knew that the decision had been right. The most important aspect was the safety of the five astronauts, and yet there is only one Space Telescope; if it were lost during the launching procedure, the delay would be many years.

We hoped the delay would be only temporary, but it soon emerged that the entire unit would have to be removed and checked, so that there was not chance of a second attempt for well over a week. Feeling frustrated, most of us went home…

The space shuttle Discovery lifts off with the Hubble Space Telescope aboard on 24 April 1990. Image: NASA.

But all is now well. By April 24 everything was ready once more. This time I was not at the Cape, but at the British Aerospace headquarters in Bristol, where the launch was to be shown ‘live’ on a large television screen; the signal was sent by way of the Olympus satellite. Around thirty people were in the viewing room, plus a very small (I would say, regrettably small) number of the media. Once again the signs were good; at 1.15 British summer time the screen went ‘live’, and we saw the Shuttle in its pad, with the Orbiter attached to it. Countdown went as before; there was a brief ‘hold’ half a minute before launch – and then at last, came the great moment. We saw the Shuttle’s engines come to life, the huge vehicle rose from its pad, slowly at first and then faster and faster. After the many delays and disappointments, the great telescope was on its way.

It was not until the following day that the solar panels were deployed but as I write these words it seems that the whole operation has gone according to plan. Do not expect a spectacular results in the immediate future – there is much to be done yet – but there is no reason to doubt that the Hubble telescope will do all that has been hoped of it. The delay has been well worth while.

Our May issue is now available to order in print or digital versions and includes part 2 of our special coverage to mark the 30th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope.