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May 15, 2011

Sunday Book Thread

I've long enjoyed reading space technology and cosmology books. I've been an inveterate space-geek since I was a kid, and I love reading about our efforts to crack that frontier.

Eric Chaisson's The Hubble Wars is one of my absolute favorite books because it combines a fascinating story of the telescope itself with a story of the antics of the human beings attempting to control the finicky beast.

It's also an interesting story about how government-backed "big science" gets done. The story of how a multi-billion dollar piece of hardware was nearly rendered useless by a malformed main mirror is a centerpiece of the book -- and the story is both funny and infuriating. The company that was supposed to run the test, Perkin-Elmer Corporation, was far over budget at the time and over schedule, so they failed to run a very basic and cheap test to test that the main mirror had the proper "prescription". The mirror was ground too flat, and no one caught the error until the telescope was already in space. If you were paying attention to the news when Hubble first went up, then you probably remember the embarrassment and chagrin experienced by NASA. But this book will tell you how dysfunctional NASA really is: Perkin-Elmer, the manufacturer of the faulty mirror, was not only not punished for the error; they were paid a bonus for outstanding performance on the contract. (PE later nearly went bankrupt and was sold to another firm.)

The Hubble Wars is as much about the people and systems on the ground as it is about the machine in space, and it's an absolutely fascinating story in both respects if you're into that sort of thing. Highly recommended.

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posted by Monty at 08:27 AM

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