Books by Eric J. Chaisson

THE HUBBLE WARS by Eric J. Chaisson
Released: May 18, 1994

The astrophysicist and author of The Life Era (1987) relates in characteristic deadpan fashion the tumultuous history of the ill-fated (if recently redeemed) Hubble Space Telescope project. ``Given both the unprecedented complexity of the vehicle on orbit and the idiosyncratic cast of human characters on the ground, it is a miracle that the Hubble Space Telescope works as well as it does,'' Chaisson states in this detailed and often bleakly humorous account of the super-telescope's trials. Chaisson unleashes a great deal of pent-up frustration when enumerating the human frailties that nearly destroyed 20th-century astronomy's great ``cathedral of science.'' Spectacularly over budget, behind schedule, and hindered by antiquated technology before launch, Hubble tumbled through its first years in space with its solar arrays flapping like a bird's wings and its primary mirror no clearer than a pair of dirty glasses. While stunned scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute (where Chaisson has been a senior scientist and director of educational programs) absorbed this bad news, NASA's PR department churned out cheery press releases insisting that all was well; astronomers protested that planned public access to the telescope would violate their proprietary ``data rights'' to sections of the universe; the press opted for sensationalistic headlines and exaggeratedly gloomy editorials; military- intelligence experts hinted that they could solve Hubble's engineering problems but failed to do so; and Congress threatened to end the project altogether if the Institute couldn't come up with pretty pictures to placate a disappointed public. Chaisson sees as the project's Achilles' heel the absence of a primary contractor with overarching responsibility for the end product. ``Perhaps,'' he concludes, ``the system that is Space Telescope is just too complex for humanity's current level of applied intelligence.'' A sobering tale—but Chaisson's final list of ``lessons to be learned'' should be required reading for those who hope to forge on. (130 black and white photos, 8 pages of color photos; major ad/promo) Read full book review >