Casting Loose the Surly Bonds of Earth, the Huge Hubble Telescope Will Be Al Boggess's Eye in the Sky

updated 04/09/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/09/1990 01:00AM

When Al Boggess was a small boy, he used to stand under the great wide canopy of the Texas night sky and listen as his mother pointed to the distant stars and told their names. A half century later, Boggess, 61, is still staring at the sky, filled with wonder at the universe. Next week, he expects to take a giant step closer to the secrets of the heavens.

The space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral April 12 with a payload precious to astronomers everywhere: As it orbits 380 miles above Earth, astronauts will release the Hubble Space Telescope, whose $2 billion price tag (including its ground station) makes it the costliest scientific instrument ever built and the first to observe space unobscured by Earth's atmosphere. "We'll be able to see clearly for the first time," says Boggess, the senior scientist of the giant telescope project at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "It's as though you were terribly nearsighted and then one day you get glasses and the world suddenly comes into focus."

Despite its size—43 feet by 14 feet, or about the size of a 14-wheel tractor trailer—the Hubble is basically the same tubular shape as the yard-long instrument Galileo built in 1609. One end has a door that will open when the scope leaves the shuttle, letting in light reflected from its two huge mirrors. At the other end of the cylinder are two cameras, two spectrographs and a photometer to capture and analyze the images. Astronomers will direct the telescope's movements by signals sent from Goddard, and all its data will be shipped down to Earth through a satellite relay system, winding up at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Boggess isn't sure just what the scope—named for Edwin Powell Hubble, the American astronomer who discovered that the universe is expanding—will find up there, but he expects wondrous things. "Clearly," he says, "Galileo had no idea he was going to discover that Venus went around the sun or that there were rings around Saturn, but he had developed a new piece of scientific technology and wanted to try it out—and all those amazing things burst forth."

Boggess, who expects to view the first pictures from his orbiting peephole next month, has waited half a lifetime for the opportunity. In 1955, with a doctorate in astronomy from the University of Michigan, he went to work for the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. Four years later he joined NASA and in 1968 began working on designs for a space scope. "There was a rather small group interested in astronomy from space," he recalls, "and most astronomers felt it was a kind of far-out, science-fiction way to go." NASA was finally ready to launch three years ago, when the Challenger tragedy forced the project's postponement.

Now the Hubble is all set to peer out into space with an astonishingly clear eye: Its optical acuity is such that it can detect the light from a common two-battery flashlight from a quarter of a million miles away. The scope will become fully operational after nine months of fine-tuning and should be good for at least 15 years, helped along by occasional maintenance visits by space-walking repairmen. Once again Al Boggess invokes the ghost of his astronomical forefather. "The improvement Galileo's telescope made over what people could see by looking at the stars with their naked eyes," he says, "was about the same degree of improvement the space telescope will make over ground observatories today."

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