Field of Science

The Story of Fixing Hubble

I can't tell if Charles Pellerin, the director of NASA astrophysics at the time the Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, is a really honest person or a really lucky person. He was able to get a mission together that fixed Hubble after a disastrous design flaw was found in the telescope after it was already in space. In an article over at Computerworld he gives an account of the technical and social workings that led to the launch of Hubble with a spherically aberrerated mirror — the telescope's mirror was flawed such that it would take a space serving mission to make it usable for science. In 1993 a space mission did successfully fix Hubble, just three years after Huuble went to space as a deferred dream. In hindsight Pellerin believes what led to the mistake in Hubble's design, and the 1986 Challenger disaster, was as much technical as social. The pressure put on the rational scientists by management led to the problems.

Large projects have social forces at play such as 'normalisation of deviance' wherein problems become okay logically when you step back from them. An entire mission can drift noticeably into situations where more than a simple technical argument can stop it. Pellerin took notice of research which shows that social context can be a larger determinate of performance rather than individual abilities. Pellerin asserts that Hubble nor Challenger was a product of invisible or unmanageable forces. While certain accidents may be unavoidable, others are avoidable and they may be the fault of leadership. Today Pellerin teaches management techniques founded concepts of mutual respect, authenticity, and efficient action incorporated into the leadership.

There's nothing unusual about having a bad day at the office. But some people have worse days than others, and in his time Charles (Charlie) Pellerin has had a few notable ones. Not many people find themselves having to explain why an organisation has invested a decade and half and in the vicinity of $3 billion on a project that has failed.

That's the position Pellerin found himself in as NASA's director of astrophysics in the wake of the 1990 launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, which had what appeared to be an unfixable flaw in its optical system.

It's difficult to overstate what a disaster this was and the humiliation faced by NASA; not just as an organisation but also the individuals who worked for the agency. A good friend of Pellerin who worked on the telescope fell ill in the wake of the launch and died. Two of Pellerin's senior staffers had to be removed from their offices by guards and taken to alcohol rehab facilities. "These are PhDs sitting at their desk getting drunk; this is how bad the stress was," says Pellerin.

Read on about how NASA's short-sightedness led to a flaw in Hubble's optics.

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