Nova (1974–…): Season 42, Episode 8 - Invisible Universe Revealed - full transcript

Twenty-five years ago, NASA launched one of the most ambitious experiments in the history of astronomy: the Hubble Space Telescope. In honor of Hubble's landmark anniversary, NOVA tells the remarkable story of the telescope that f...

Are you wondering how healthy the food you are eating is? Check it -
Lift off of the Space Shuttle

With the Hubble Space Telescope.

CAPCOM, we have a go
for release.

It may be the boldest experiment
ever undertaken in astronomy...

with a legacy
that will endure for centuries.

You have been awarded
the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The Hubble Space Telescope is
probably the most scientifically

Productive instrument
in history.

This single tool...
the Hubble Space Telescope...

Has revealed the size
and age of the universe,

The birthplace of stars, and
the existence of black holes.

It's helped us find planets
like our own

In far-off solar systems

And a mysterious force...
Dark energy...

That makes up about 70%
of the universe.

The Hubble Space Telescope
has completely changed the way

That we as scientists
understand the universe.

The story of Hubble
is a story of discovery.

It's also the story

Of one of the biggest blunders
in the history of science.

This is the moment we find out

That we are doomed to failure.

Is it possible that you could
bring the telescope back?

And of the genius and courage
that saved the day.

The moment of truth is coming.

You can't run from it anymore,
it's coming, there it is.

Now, on Hubble's
25th anniversary,

NOVA tells the remarkable tale

Of how this magnificent machine
was built,

How it has solved some of our
most enduring mysteries,

And how it is showing us
a universe

As beautiful
as it is astonishing.

"Invisible Universe Revealed"...
Right now on NOVA.

Major funding for NOVA is
provided by the following:

At Cance NOVA and promoting
public understanding of science.

And the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting.

And by:

And Millicent Bell through:

Since the dawn of humanity,
we've looked to the heavens

And wondered,
how old is the universe?

How many stars are there
in the sky?

Are there other planets
out there like our own?

But in the last 25 years,
there's been a revolution...

All because of a machine
called Hubble.

Traveling in space,

High above the distortions
of our atmosphere,

Gives this giant telescope
great power.

It's the size of a school bus.

It's traveling
at 17,000 miles an hour.

It's 300-and-something miles
above your head.

But in there is one of the most
precise mirrors

Mankind has ever built.

Billions of times more sensitive
than our own eyes,

The space telescope

Has literally brought
the universe to us,

Making more than a million

One legendary image is called
the "Pillars of Creation."

It's a giant plume of gas
and dust where stars are born.

Our own sun probably formed
in a place like this.

The whole region is something
like 400 trillion miles,

So it's massive, it's huge.

But still within the context
of our own Milky Way,

It's just one little part.

Hubble has also
captured pictures

Of places where stars die.

These are planetary nebulae...
Remnants of expiring stars.

They look like artworks
in the heavens.

Each one of them is different,
like snowflakes.

And these are some
of the most spectacular images

That Hubble has produced.

Hubble has shown us that
black holes are real.

A giant one sits
at the center of our galaxy

And nearly every other we know.

It's discovered
the age of the universe

And that there are more stars
in the heavens

Than grains of sand
on all the beaches and deserts

Of the world combined.

Over the past 25 years,

Hubble has told us a story
of creation, destruction,

And of vast, new mysteries
that beckon our curiosity.

But putting it in space
long seemed an impossible dream,

Even to those
who took on the challenge.

I started out in optical
astronomy and spectroscopy.

But as a woman in my generation,

I could not get tenure
at a research institution.

In 1959, when NASA was formed,

One of the men there asked me
if I knew anyone

Who would like to set up
a program in space astronomy.

And I decided that the idea

Of influencing astronomy
for 50 years

Was just more than I could
resist, so I took the job.

Astronomer Nancy Roman is known
as the mother of the Hubble.

She worked on its design and
development for nearly 25 years.

If I brought anything to it,
it was perseverance

And belief that it was possible.

The idea of a space telescope

Was first seriously proposed
in 1946

By Princeton scientist
Lyman Spitzer.

He was the scientific visionary,

And Roman was the force
that pushed this vision forward,

Decades before the technology
was up to the task.

Even into the mid-'60s,

Just getting a rocket safely
into space was a challenge.

There were a lot of failures.

We were babies
learning how to walk.

And we didn't always succeed.

Babies fall down,

And we did too.

But however far-fetched
at the time,

The lure of getting a telescope

Above the distortion of the
earth's atmosphere was strong.

The major challenge
facing astronomers

Was the twinkle of the stars.

Twinkling stars are an inspiring
source of poetry,

But in terms of observing stars,
it's not very good.

If you can imagine

You're swimming on the bottom
of the swimming pool

And you look up
and you see the distortion.

It's like a fun house mirror.

That's what it's like

To study stars
from the surface of the Earth.

The atmosphere is just like
that water in that pool.

It sloshes around and moves
and distorts the image.

But when you come up out of
the water, everything's clear.

That's exactly what happens

When a telescope
gets above the atmosphere.

In the pristine vacuum of space,
light can travel

For billions of light years,

The atmosphere not only
distorts light,

It prevents some from reaching
the ground at all.

So for those reasons,
astronomers for a long time

Were eager
to get something outside.

And so I got a committee

And that was the beginning
of the Hubble.

The space telescope
was named for Edwin Hubble,

The great astronomer who did
much of his pioneering work

In the 1920s at Mt. Wilson
Observatory in California.

In those days,
our own galaxy, the Milky Way,

Was considered the entirety
of the universe.

Nearly everyone, even Einstein,
believed the universe

Had existed forever
in its present state...

That it was eternal
and unchanging.

But Hubble
would prove them all wrong.

He began by figuring out

How far away the stars
he was seeing actually were.

At the time of Edwin Hubble,

It was hard
to measure distances.

It still is even today.

It's difficult to know
if a star appears bright

Because it is actually bright

Or simply because
it is close to us.

So Hubble searched
for a rare type of star

Called a Cepheid variable.

Cepheids pulse
at a known brightness,

So by measuring the amount
of light he could see,

He could calculate how far away
the star actually was.

In October 1923,

Hubble found a Cepheid
in a gaseous cluster of stars

Then called
the Andromeda nebula.

It yielded a shocking discovery.

When he actually did
the calculations,

He discovered Andromeda

Was roughly a million
light years away from us,

Which is outside our galaxy.

Andromeda was its own galaxy.

Oh, there are other galaxies
out there,

And we're just one of them.

For the first time in history,
there was evidence

That our universe stretched
far beyond the Milky Way.

But then what he did was
he measured the speed

Of a whole bunch
of these galaxies.

Edwin Hubble measured speed

By looking at the light
the galaxies emitted.

He knew if the galaxy
was moving toward him,

The waves would shorten

And shift to the blue part
of the spectrum.

If it was moving away,

The waves would lengthen
and shift to the red.

Every distant galaxy
Hubble looked at,

He saw the light
from it being red-shifted,

Which meant everything is moving
away from everything else.

And he found
the further away they were,

The faster they were going.

In fact, the universe itself
was expanding,

Stretching the light
from the galaxies.

Edwin Hubble had changed

Our understanding
of the cosmos forever.

The whole universe
was clearly expanding.

And so this was the discovery

Of the expansion
of the universe.

You know, which Einstein said,
"Well, that's crazy, right?"

The discovery of the expansion
of the universe of course

Was a very strong piece
of evidence for a beginning.

If everything is now expanding,
you can run this backwards

And see that everything
should have started

From a certain point
or singularity,

What we today call a Big Bang.

That was pretty radical

And mind-blowing stuff
back in the '20s and '30s,

And some people today
even find it mind-blowing.


Hubble's discovery opened up
the modern era of astronomy

And raised huge questions,
like "How old is the universe?"

But astronomers couldn't see
clearly and deeply enough

Into the cosmos, so the mystery
would endure for decades.

Determining the age
of the universe

Was definitely
one of the key goals

Of the launch
of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Astronomers used to have

Whether the universe
was ten billion years

Or 20 billion years old

Until we launched
the Hubble Telescope.

But first,
they would have to build it.

I realized that

My job at NASA to a large extent
was salesmanship.

And it was a particular problem
with Congress.

We can cut the space program

Congress has already cut that
$400 million

And I think we can cut it
a billion dollars,

And we should cut it
a billion dollars.

Proxmire was quite famous
as a senator

Of picking out projects
that he thought were stupid.

We have a war going on
in Vietnam.

And he asked NASA
why the American taxpayer

Should pay for something
like the Hubble.

And I came up
with the answer that

For the cost
of a night at the movies,

Every American would have
15 years of exciting discovery.

Finally, after more
than a decade,

The plans were approved in 1977.

Hubble's power would come
from an eight-foot wide mirror.

It would gather light
from across the universe.

To magnify the sky
and see tiny details,

It would need a long distance
to focus the light

And give a clear image.

But a space telescope
needs to be compact,

So Hubble would use
a second mirror

To further magnify the light
and focus it onto the cameras.

For it to work, the mirrors
would have to be perfect.

Hubble was the most precise
optical mirror ever made.

No place along its surface

Could have deviated
from a perfect curve

By more than a millionth
of an inch.

An optics company, Perkin-Elmer,
was chosen to do the work,

In part because it had already
made mirrors for spy satellites.

They told NASA,

"We know how to do this, and
this technology is proprietary.

"We are not going to let you
come in

And watch what we are doing."

So NASA got
a rather limited view

Of what was going on
in that little group.

They had very,
very precise instruments

That they designed
just for polishing this mirror.

They had to work at night

So that the vibration of cars
in the parking lot

Wouldn't cause problems
with the polishing equipment.

They had to isolate it
and float it on a table

So any vibrations from the
building wouldn't come in.

And this program was
over budget, behind schedule.

They were desperate to get
the telescope built and flown.

Perkin-Elmer's own measurements

Showed discrepancies
in the surface of the mirror,

But this was never passed on
to NASA.

The telescope was declared
ready for launch,

A disaster waiting to happen.

The hopes and dreams
of the world's astronomers

Were with us that day
at Cape Canaveral.

The last time astronomers

Leapt a factor of ten
in observing capability

Was when Galileo, in 1610,
instead of using his eye,

Put the telescope
in front of his eye.

And liftoff
of the Space Shuttle Discovery

With the Hubble Space Telescope,
our window on the universe!

All increases in capability
after Galileo were incremental.

They weren't leaps of a factor
of ten, until Hubble.

Mission Control, Houston.

Roger all, Discovery.

We thought, "Let's go,
we're off to the races!"

Little did we know
the time bomb that was ticking.

Little did we know.

Discover Houston.

You have a go to open the doors.

After nearly 30 years
of planning, on April 25, 1990,

Astronauts used a robotic arm

To deploy the Hubble
space telescope in orbit

380 miles above the earth.

CAPCOM, we have a go
for release.

We concur, Charlie.

Mission control,
Houston confirms,

The Hubble Space Telescope
is released.

With the telescope
finally in place,

Everyone was excited
to see what it could do.

make final adjustments
before we get to see

The clearest pictures ever seen
in the history of astronomy.

Nose gear touch down.

But when the first images

They weren't quite what
the scientists had expected.

When they first saw these images

They just assumed the telescope
wasn't in focus.

They tried to move the focus
backwards and forwards,

But the light kept being blurred
like it was always out of focus.

It was really quite a shock.

We were very worried.

I just couldn't believe it.

It definitely was a huge shock.

We were supposed
to revolutionize astronomy.

How is it that we can't focus
this telescope?

How is this even possible?

After weeks of investigation,
horrified astronomers suspected

Something was wrong
with the mirror.

This is my logbook that I kept
during the early days of Hubble.

Daily, we went to meetings,
and we kept a record

Of everything that
was happening.

Here is a particularly
interesting day.

We were told about the actuators
on the back of the mirror.

The actuators might be able
to fix small errors

In the surface of the mirror
by pushing and pulling on it,

So this says, "One half wave
is 7 times the dynamic range,"

Meaning the problem is seven
times worse than they could fix.

And here's a little note
I wrote:

"This is the moment we find out
that we are doomed to failure!"

Sandra Faber and her colleagues

Realized that the problem
was massive

And lay at the very heart
of the telescope.

The Hubble telescope

Has a big primary mirror
that collects the light,

And then there's
a secondary mirror

Which reflects the light
back down to the detector.

So if everything is working,
every zone of the primary mirror

Should come to a focus
at exactly the same location.

With a single focal point,

A star would appear crisp
and bright.

But this wasn't
what was happening.

As I looked
at those star images,

I could see that
the problem with Hubble

Was the rays are coming
to a focus at different points.

And that is the classic problem
called spherical aberration.

This is the actual set of images
that my team presented

That convinced people
of the spherical aberration.

The top set of images
is simulated with software,

The bottom is the actual images,
and the fact that they match

Is what shows that we really
understood what was going on.

That was the kiss of death.

It was like
a bullet to the head.

So I said, "Well,
what are we going to do?"

Should we declare this telescope
to be junk and just end it?

Can we use it
in its present form

And get something out of it?

Can we fix it?

And all of those thoughts were
running through people's minds

In those fateful days
after this discovery.

Somehow, the mirror
had been polished too flat,

And there might not be anything
anyone could do to fix it.

It was probably early June

When people starting saying
the "S" word...

Spherical aberration.

That lead up
to the infamous press conference

That I'll never forget
as long as I live.

What might have made
this happen?

Do you know for sure that
that the aberration

Is in the primary mirror,
the secondary mirror, both?

Why wasn't it caught
on the ground?

This was one of the most
expensive science projects

That NASA had ever undertaken,
and it was a techno-turkey.

Is it possible that you could
bring the telescope back?

It was an absolute disaster.

And so it became life and death
for NASA itself.

It was the national joke.

We went from being the heroes
of the universe

To the Mr. Magoos,

And being associated with the
telescope was difficult.

A NASA board of inquiry searched
for clues to what went wrong.

Inspecting every piece of every
tool used to polish the mirror,

They found the smoking gun:
a few missing chips of paint.

They had thrown off
the laser-guided measuring tool

Used to shape the mirror.

Everything was off
about a millimeter.

And so they polished the edges
of the mirror a little too flat,

About 1/50th of the thickness
of a human hair.

Many feared this meant
Hubble was dead,

Since the mirror
was hard to access

And impossible to remove
in space.

Sandra Faber was on the panel
tasked with finding a solution.

A blue ribbon committee

People were thinking
about everything

From bringing the telescope down

To having astronauts
go up in orbit

And swim down into the tube

And install correcting optics
in front of the primary mirror.

I called the report, jokingly,

"50 bad ways
to fix a space telescope."

The best idea was to put
small corrective mirrors

In front of the cameras
and other instruments.

But the problem was getting the
mirrors inside the telescope.

Jim Crocker was an engineer
in charge of Hubble operations.

We got to the point
where it's like,

"We're kind of running
out of ideas here

"and not sure what to do.

"There's a lot of ways
to fix this,

There's just no way
to perform them in space."

I actually came back
from the meeting

And went back to the hotel
that we were staying at

And I thought,

"Well, I'll take a shower
before we go out to dinner."

The showerhead
is on a sliding rod,

And the head goes up and down.

And so I turned the water on
and I slid it up,

And then it was like it clicked.

If we packaged the mirrors
into a little robotic arm

And we put that arm
into a new instrument,

You could raise this mirror up
and flip the little mirrors out

In front of each
of the other instruments

And correct them all.

And I thought,
"Huh, that'll work."

NASA agreed
and immediately started work.

Astronauts would install
an instrument called Costar.

Once in place,
its four arms would flip out,

Like the showerhead,

And essentially give Hubble

But no one
had ever done anything

Remotely this intricate
in space.

When I got the job,

I didn't smile
and I didn't celebrate anything.

I says, "Here we go.

I'll do the best I can
with this."

I told NASA
and I told the media,

They're all saying
we're going to fix it,

And I told them, "I don't know
if we're going to fix it."

Musgrave and a team
of astronauts

Trained for 20 months
preparing to fix Hubble.

We choreograph this dance down
to every finger and every toe.

You know, a great ballerina,
it's every finger and every toe.

You can't have something
messed up.

You can't exactly mimic
what you're going to do there.

So in your imagination,
you watch yourself work.

Then it is practice,

So that you can pull it off
when you have to.

To simulate working in space,

The astronauts spent
400 hours underwater

Rehearsing on a mock-up
of Hubble.

I think the most incredible
thing about this

Is that the astronauts were
prepared to risk their lives

To go and fix
a scientific instrument.

We know the shuttle
was not a perfect machine.

After all,
there's been two disasters.

I had a one-in-ten chance
of dying.

I don't like those odds.

But it's not a matter of fear.

You've decided ahead of time
it's what you do in life.

And we have lift-off.

Lift-off of the Space Shuttle

On an ambitious mission

To service the Hubble Space

In eight minutes,

They went from zero
to 17,500 miles an hour.

It's rough, and the vibrations
are very rough.

It's a butterfly
bolted onto a bullet,

You know,
that's what's going on.

It takes the crew two days
to catch up to the telescope.

As soon as I caught
that bright star out there,

It had to be Hubble,
nothing else.

The moment of truth is coming.

You can't run from it anymore,
it's coming.

There it is.

Endeavor, keep monitors

And you've got a go for capture.

The crew will do
five spacewalks...

At the time, the most ever
attempted on a single mission.

Okay, visors as required.

On the third walk, Musgrave
and astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman

Need to replace Hubble's
wide field camera.

It was designed to capture a
broad range of light frequencies

Across a large area of the sky.

Oh, look at that baby,
beautiful spanking new!

The most critical moment