This story originally appeared in the Sunday, April 18 print edition of The News-Times. Click here to subscribe.
DANBURY -- There is a generation living on Earth today that has never known life without the Hubble Space Telescope. They've grown up in an age of miracles and wonders.
Launched April 24, 1990 Hubble has been in space for 20 years. As the Millennials have grown up, Hubble has always been above them, circling the globe every 97 minutes, sending back its breathtaking images and galaxy-shattering data.
Alongside Apollo missions to the moon, Hubble has been NASA's greatest achievement in space. Some might argue, the greatest.
"It's the longest-running NASA endeavor,'' said Ray Villard, NASA's spokesman for Hubble. "And it's never stopped inspiring people. It's opened up the undiscovered country.''
For the engineers who built Hubble -- many of whom still live in the Danbury area -- there's a real sense of pride of ownership.
Working at Perkin-Elmer -- now Goodrich Corp. -- they helped design and build some of the essential elements of Hubble: its mirrors, that let it collect the light of the universe, the fine guidance sensors that keep Hubble focused, even the latches on its compartments.
"There's must be 25 technologies on Hubble that were invented from scratch at Perkin-Elmer,'' said George Hefferon of Ridgefield, who was on the Perkin-Elmer team that developed the winning bid for the Hubble telescope.
"What a machine that is,'' he said.
"The workmanship is evident,'' said Ed Broderick of Shelton, who was in production control at Perkin-Elmer while the telescope was being built.
And for the people who use Hubble today, there's not only a sense of pride, but gratitude.
"Hubble made my career,'' said astronomer Heidi Hammel, of Ridgefield, who first came to prominence when she headed a NASA team of astronomers using Hubble to watch Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crash into Jupiter in 1994.
Hammel said her work with Hubble on the collision thrust her -- an unknown young astronomer -- into national prominence. It was also the first time after the 1993 repair that Hubble got to show what it could do.
"If you had a backyard telescope, you could see black spots on Jupiter,'' she said of the place where comet fragments hit Jupiter. "But the Hubble images far surpassed anything taken by any telescope on Earth.''
"And it's just gotten better and better,'' Hammel said of the telescope, which, after each of its four repair missions, has had its capabilities improve.
The local people who worked on Hubble knew early on it was going to be an important project.
"I think all of us knew, just because of the size of the mirrors,'' said Broderick, of the 94.5-inch-wide, 1,825-pound mirror.
And from that point, Hubble's optics became a part of the story of Western Connecticut.
When it was discovered in 1990, after Hubble's launch, that the Perkin-Elmer primary mirror, while perfectly polished, was misshapen -- blurring the telescope's vision -- there was a sense of dismay in the region.
"It was a big, big problem,'' Broderick said.
"People used to stop on the street to ask about the broken Hubble,'' Villard said.
But when NASA was able to correct Hubble's vision in 1993 -- in part because the mirror, while off by one-fiftieth the width of a human hair, was perfectly shaped and polished -- there was a great sense of elation.
"There was this sense of `Oh boy! Oh, yeah!' " Broderick said.
Villard said that because of Hubble's travails -- its rocky start, the NASA decision to let it die in 2004, its resurrection and its last, brilliantly successful repair mission in 2009 -- people feel protective about it.
"When the government decided in 2004 not to have another repair mission, it was like we were tied to the railroad tracks,'' Villard said. "And we came back.
"The Hubble story is a comeback story. It's an American story.''
But even good stories have an end.
Hubble's last repair mission in 2009 was really and truly its last. It may last another five years, or another 10. But it eventually will die.
And, Hammel said, when that happens, she knows what she will do.
"I'll cry,'' she said.
"I have a little piece of Hubble that someone brought back from one of the repair missions,'' she said. "It's on my desk, where I work. I do feel a personal connection to it. It's been part of my life for 20 years.''
And if Hubble drops out of its orbits and burns up somewhere over the Pacific, Hammel said, she'd like to be there to watch.
"When a loved one dies, you try to honor that person,'' she said.
Contact Robert Miller
or at 203-731-3345.