Twenty-five years ago today, the Hubble Space Telescope commenced its operations — following a series of frustrating setbacks that didn’t end even after it was locked into a low-Earth orbit.Design on the telescope began in 1978, with a projected launch date sometime in 1983. This had to be pushed back to 1984 and then 1986 when the project ran over budget — and when the construction of the Optical Telescope Array and the mirror inside it was mismanaged, causing the schedule to slip further and further behind.
Almost a decade later, William Herschel spotted Uranus in the “suburbs”, a discovery celebrated by poet and inventor Erasmus Darwin and used by the young John Keats as a symbol of Romantic wonder itself,  in his 1816sonnet On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken”.

Delays and defects

Hubble’s successor in orbit, the James Webb Space Telescope, has been plagued with massive cost overruns. It’s currently running over five years late for its planned launch, and costs have nearly quadrupled, getting so bad that Congress threatened to kill it a few years back. This might make you wonder why NASA couldn’t get its act together the way it did on the Hubble.

Anyone who thinks that doesn’t know their history. Even before any hardware was built, cost issues caused NASA to scale down the size of the primary mirror and turn to the European Space Agency for money, bringing the ESA on as a partner in return for access. The production of Hubble’s primary mirror, contracted to a scientific instrument company called Perkin-Elmer, caused the same sorts of problems we’ve seen with the James Webb, with regular schedule slips and costs exploding.

Observational leaps have fired up poets for centuries. As scientists from the seventeenth century on harnessed ever more sophisticated optics to probe the heavens (see Philip Ball’s review of Galileo’s Telescope; 2015), transformative insights from their findings began to seep into culture, bolstered by populist works. Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle’s 1686 Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, for instance, championed the Copernican system, framing Earth as just one world in a crowded Universe and even playing with the idea of extraterrestrial life.Anna Barbauld’s 1772 nocturne A Summer Evening’s Meditation is a tour de force. Barbauld, assistant to the chemist Joseph Priestley and a champion of Enlightenment values, used science as a poetic springboard into speculation about the great beyond. “This dead of midnight is the noon of thought,/And wisdom mounts her zenith with the stars”, she writes, and imagines seeing

…solitary Mars; from the vast orb
Of Jupiter, whose huge gigantic bulk
Dances in ether like the lightest leaf;
To the dim verge, the suburbs of the system,
Where chearless Saturn ‘midst her watry moons
Girt with a lucid zone, majestic sits….