Postcards from Creation

Published March 19, 2004, issue of March 19, 2004.
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For most of us, it took some imagination to make sense of those photos of distant galaxies released last week by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The pictures looked like nothing so much as colored blotches. You had to read NASA’s explanations to understand what they were: postcards from the dawn of time.

The photos, taken by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, offer a glimpse through deep space at a cluster of galaxies some 13 billion light years away, farther than anything ever seen before. Put differently, those twinkles traveled 13 billion years before reaching us. Since scientists estimate the universe to be about 13.8 billion years old, the photos are snapshots of the universe shortly after it was born — just moments, in cosmic terms, after what science calls the Big Bang and religion calls Creation.

Hubble could take those pictures because of its location, 375 miles above the earth’s surface. From there it is able to see space clearly, its vision uniquely free of the distortions of the atmosphere. Since its launch in 1990, the $1.5 billion satellite has sent back a steady stream of pictures and data that have advanced our knowledge of the universe more than any single implement before. The Israeli astrophysicist Mario Livio, Hubble’s senior scientist, unblinkingly calls the device “truly the greatest instrument that ever was.”

As dazzling as the pictures are, more astounding is last month’s decision by NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe to cancel Hubble’s next scheduled maintenance mission and let the telescope die. The reason is not budget but safety; Hubble maintenance is routinely performed by crews of Shuttle astronauts, and O’Keefe frets that in light of last year’s Columbia disaster, the risks of a repair are too high.

Never mind that the head of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, Admiral Harold Gehman, believes a “deep and rich study of the entire gain/risk equation” is needed before we can know if rescuing Hubble is worth the risk. Never mind that the astronauts themselves appear willing and eager to give it a try, believing, as Apollo pioneer Walter Cunningham wrote in the Houston Chronicle this week, that “we should not let failures paralyze our ability to move ahead.”

O’Keefe imagines he’s learned the lessons of the Columbia crash. In fact his attitude continues the old NASA culture that bred the disaster: Faced with a tough decision, keep your head down and punt. Even after welcoming the National Academy of Sciences decision this month to review the Hubble cancellation, O’Keefe insisted that if the mission is to be approved, “somebody else would have to make that decision, not me, because I’m not doing it.”

The issue isn’t simply timidity versus bravado. Exploring the heavens is an extension of one of the deepest impulses in humanity. Since our beginnings, humans have looked upward and wondered where we fit into the vastness of the universe. Early religions imagined that the lights they saw twinkling above were divine powers governing our lives. Judaism introduced the notion that we and the stars are all part of one Infinite vastness, that our task down here is to learn the rules of that vastness and act on them. Other faiths — Christianity, Islam, modern humanism — have added fresh perspectives on how to read the rules. But nothing has deepened the original insight: that we are travelers in the universe, that even though we may never know its full extent, we are destined forever to search.

Hubble is worth the risk. NASA must find a way to save it.

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