Who Invented the Hubble Telescope?

Who Invented the Hubble Telescope? "Hubble Space Telescope (HST)"

When Lyman Spitzer first proposed sending a large telescope into orbit in 1946, he knew it was going to take a while. The most powerful rocket of the day, the V-2, could send instruments into space for only a few minutes. The first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was still more than a decade away.

Lyman Spitzer

But, little could Spitzer have realized that it would take 44 years for the space telescope he invented to make it into orbit. The fact that it did is a tribute to the determination of a visionary who would not take “no” for an answer.

Born in Toledo, Ohio in 1914, Spitzer graduated from Scott High School and studied physics at Yale College. He was inspired to pursue astrophysics after meeting the famous Indian scientist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar during a fellowship at Cambridge University. Spitzer went on to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics at Princeton University in 1939. Nine years later, he became chairman of Princeton’s Astrophysical Sciences Department; he was only 33.

The year before he became chariman, Spitzer proposed sending a telescope into space, where it would fly high above the turbulence of the Earth’s atmosphere. An orbiting telescope would be able to observe infrared and ultraviolet light, most of which is absorbed by the atmosphere.

The space telescope became Spitzer’s life mission. In 1965, he was named head of a committee charged with defining the observatory’s scientific goals. NASA approved plans for the telescope in 1968, with a launch date planned for 1979 aboard the new space shuttle.

Both the observatory, named after famed astronomer Edwin Hubble, and the space shuttle were beset by technical problems, budget overruns and delays. Spitzer and his fellow scientists met with members of Congress and organized letter writing campaigns to keep Hubble alive. Their effort paid off. The telescope was completed and a launch set for October 1986.

Then tragedy struck when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded after liftoff in January of that year. As the nation mourned and NASA fixed the problem, the telescope sat in storage. It was not until April 25, 1990, that the Hubble was deployed by astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

Hubble Telescope

Who Invented the Hubble Telescope? Although named to honor astronomer Edwin Hubble, the telescope was championed by astronomer Lyman Spitzer.

Then NASA discovered a final obstacle. The pictures were blurry. The telescope’s mirror had been ground incorrectly. It was not until December 1993 that another crew of astronauts was able to install corrective optics that the telescope was able to focus properly. The Hubble then began to return extraordinary results, vindicating the nearly 50 dedicated years of Lyman Spitzer, the “father” of the space telescope.

Even as he passed 80, Spitzer continued to analyze results from Hubble. On March 31, 1997, he spent the morning happily drinking coffee and chatting with colleagues about the latest developments in astronomy. He then went to work on a scientific paper in which he used Hubble data to analyze the theory of interstellar matter. After a full day of laboring on his life’s work, Spitzer collapsed suddenly at home and passed away. He was 82 years old.

Spitzer’s death was greatly mourned. To honor his great legacy, NASA renamed the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) as the Spitzer Space Telescope (SST). The spacecraft, launched in 2003, was the fourth and final telescope in NASA’s Great Observatories program – an effort Spitzer had helped to kick off 57 years earlier. It was a fitting tribute.

Links for "Who Invented the Hubble Telescope?"

Lyman Spitzer Biography

Hubble Space Telescope

Spitzer Telescope


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