Danbury is the Birthplace of the Hubble Telescope
The Hubble telescope was launched into orbit in 1990, is named after astronomer Edwin Hubble and is responsible for some of the most fascinating pictures of deep space - but you probably already knew that. What you might not know is that the Hubble was born in Danbury, CT.
On the Ethan and Lou Show, we have a segment called "The Place You Live." It features Mike Allen. Mike is the former I-95 News Director and a skilled communicator. Every Tuesday morning, he joins the Ethan and Lou Show to give us a deeper look into the small towns of CT and NY.
On Tuesday's show (4/13/21) Mike did a segment we called "Hubble in Danbury". In it, we learned that the major components of the world's most famous telescope were made in the Hat City. Allen told us the following:
"Danbury played a central role and continues to play a central role in probably, the single most important invention in understanding the universe."
This dramatic introduction got our attention, it was enticing and the information that would follow would not disappoint. As with so many of these major scientific achievements, they start in small towns and cities in America and are not widely publicized in the community where they begin.
After explaining how the Hubble telescope would model how human eyes perceive objects and light in stereo, Mike got down to informing us on what our local area had to do with the Hubble.
"The government finally said in 1970, the NASA government agency said, we're going to do this. We're going to put a telescope in outer space and they turned to Perkin Elmer in Danbury, CT to build the telescope."
He continued, "Now you might say why Perkin Elmer? They have an optical systems division and if you know this big white box looking building on Wooster Heights Road in Danbury near the airport. Very nondescript building, United Technologies is in there now. Inside that building is some of the most sophisticated, top-secret equipment known to humankind.
And, in fact, a story that most people don't know was in the 1960's, Perkin Elmer got approached by the C.I.A. and built something, this just became declassified a couple of years ago. They built something called the Hexagon Spy Satellite.
Uh, very simple test. Don't do this if you are driving. If you close one eye, you stop seeing three dimensional, you only see two dimensional, right? That's because you have stereo vision with two eyes open.
What Perkin Elmer essentially did was build the first, the world's first stereo satellite. This thing was the size of a school bus, weighed 30,000 pounds, had two cameras on it, so you could have two eyes and launched this thing into space. You could see on military bases, if a trash can was two feet tall or three feet tall from 90 miles away. That's how good this was.
So, Perkin Elmer had a pretty good resume when NASA said, will you do this Hubble space telescope. So, they said OK we'll do it.
Telescopes work on mirrors and you have to refract and reflect light precisely, absolutely precisely to get the right measurements. This thing was eight feet wide, this mirror weighed two thousand pounds and had to be ground specifically into a particular curvature."
It's about this time when we stopped Mike and asked him, who does this work? He explained that most of these folks either are, or were our neighbors. They lived in towns right here in the Greater Danbury area, all the while keeping their mouths closed about the top-secret projects they were assigned to.
No matter how brilliant the people were, they were assigned to a government project. The project started to go way over budget and take a lot more time than anyone intended. Mike told us by the mid-1980's the project was 50% over budget at 1.2 billion dollars and "people were starting to point fingers."
NASA and the U.S, Government put the pressure on Perkin Elmer to finish the project and they did. When they were ready in 1985, Mike Allen was covering the story for I-95 as the News Director. When it was time to transport the pieces of Hubble out of Danbury, Mike was in attendance and shared that experience saying:
"So they get it done, 1985, and I was actually for I-95, covering this at Danbury Airport when they went to fly this from the Wooster Heights facility out to California.
Now there were two parts to the telescope, one was the big mirror and one was the very, extremely sensitive guidance equipment inside the mirror.
The big mirror itself was too big for the plane that they had to use, to use Danbury Airport. So, they had to build, I don't know if you know what a clean room is when they make computer chips, you know absolutely dust free. They had to basically create and build a clean room on the back of a truck, put the mirror in that and drive it to Stewart Air-force base over in Beacon-Newburgh, over the Beacon-Newburgh Bridge.
Ten miles an hour, military escort, got it over there and flew on what was called a "guppy." There are only two "guppy" airplanes in existence at the time, both owned by the U.S. Military.
And, but they needed a longer runway than what Danbury had, so they took it over to Beacon, that took all day. Then the other part they drove down to Danbury Airport."
Mike was at the airport the day the Danbury Hubble component would take flight, recounting:
"Get it down to the airport, there is a C-130 transport plane at Danbury Airport waiting for this. This thing is so loud, you had to scream at the top of your lungs to to have the person next to you have a chance of hearing what you were saying."
Allen explained that there was tension in the air that day, people were worried about transporting such sensitive equipment.
"People were so nervous because runway 2-3 at Danbury Airport is not a long runway. It was built in the 1940's and everyone is a little nervous. The airport administrator who I am standing next to, bunch of V.I.P.'s, I got lucky enough to get over there and see this thing."
Allen explained that the tension was warranted:
"So they put it in the C-130, the thing taxis into place, now if you've never seen a C-130 transport plane, it looks like a pelican. You know, it's got that big underside, they drive jeeps into it, you know carry them out and all this. So now, it's going down the runway and it's about halfway down runway 2-3 and it's not going very fast."
Allen remembers thinking the plane would not make takeoff and wondered if the pilot had a point of no return to observe. He and some of the other observers didn't think the plane would be able liftoff in time. Mike said:
"And I'm looking and I'm seeing beads of sweat coming down people's foreheads and I'm going oh my God, this is like a disaster in the making, I'm about to witness a disaster. I swear to God, at the very end of the runway, the thing went up like a helicopter and the wheels underneath this just barely, just barely missed the fence at the end of the runway on Miry Brook Road."
It was a close call but the Hubble's guidance system had cleared another obstacle and was on it's way to make history but not without more time and some serious setbacks. You remember that I told you the Hubble didn't launch until 1990? Mike Allen's story about the Hubble components being flown out of Danbury takes place in 1985, so what happened to 5 years?
The intention was to launch it in 1986 but after the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion took place, it set back, all NASA projects which is why Hubble did not reach space until 1990.
This was not the last problem, after Hubble made it into space and started taking photographs, you might remember that it was sending back fuzzy images which led to a lot of "finger pointing,"
Allen told us that NASA determined the distorted images were the result of a "spherical ab oration." The Hubble's components had an imperfection that was off by just two microns or 1/50th the size of a human hair.
Who can one blame for a two micron mistake that puts the entire project in jeopardy? Well, it might have something to do with the project being rushed along when Perkin Elmer was over budget and late with their work.
Using a massive series of a tiny mirrors, NASA was able to develop and install a filter for the Hubble Telescope. The refrigerator size unit was installed in 1993 by NASA astronauts and it worked.
Thanks to research done by NASA, using the Hubble telescope humankind has learned so many things. We learned the universe is 13.7 billion years old, we found out how planets are formed, have identified countless black holes and learned that Pluto has four moons. All of that started here in Danbury, CT.
Hubble is still in operation but was not designed to operate this long. It was designed for 15 years and has been there for over 30 years and it's successor is on the way.
Thank you to Mike Allen for his time and research and be sure to listen to "The Place You Live" with Mike Allen every Tuesday morning on the Ethan and Lou Morning Show on I-95.
Here are some of the images Hubble has captured over it's 30 years in operation.