Friday, April 24, 2009

Happy birthday, Hubble!

The Hubble Space Telescope launched into orbit 19 years ago today, and I was lucky enough to be there in the VIP viewing area courtesy of geologist-astronaut Kathy Sullivan, who was on the shuttle crew and arranged an invitation for me.

Since the launch, Hubble has made more than 880,000 observations and snapped over 570,000 images of 29,000 celestial objects.

I never anticipated just how startling and beautiful so many of the Hubble images would turn out to be.

The night before the launch, some of us went out to the base of the launch pad for 'night viewing.' It is one of the most memorable images of my life. We stood virtually at the foot of the launch complex. Flood lights emblazoned every inch of the shuttle and gantry, and in the darkness, nothing else was visible. It was overwelming and hypnotic.

The next morning, before dawn, we took shuttle buses to a small tree-surrounded opening with a set of bleachers, as close as anyone could get to the pad, although it was still 4 miles away across a bayou. An alligator lazily swam past us as the sun rose.

At the moment of the launch, we saw the immense flames erupt from the booster rockets in almost total silence. But it was noticeable seconds before the first sound waves hit us. Then the wind from the rocket exhaust hit, completely surprising me and others with its strength.

So, for the past two decades I've watched the Hubble images with a continued sense of awe and excitement from having been there at the start of its mission.

[below, anniversary image released for the occasion. Interacting Galaxies Group Arp 194, popularly called the Fountain of Youth]

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