The Hubble Telescope: Then and Now

This week in April marks the 25th Anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. Dr. Joel Green is a Project Scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute which currently operates Hubble and will operate its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. He got together with Civilization V expansion and former Hubble Telescope programmer, Ed Beach, to talk about the historic satellite, programming for science and games, and, of course, the Sid Meier's Civilization series.

Joel: What got you into the science field?

Ed: It was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos that got me started on this path. That was when I was in high school. I remember writing a bunch of my application essays to get into college based on themes that had come from watching Cosmos. My original path was going to be a Physics major, but I diverted when I realized how much I loved working on the computer science part of my Physics classes.

Joel: And how did you get started working on the Hubble?

Ed: The first ten years of my career I was working for Computer Sciences Corporation on NASA Goddard contracts and that’s how I got started working on the Hubble right out of school. The good thing was there was a lot of software engineering best practices and a formal approach that I learned during this time. It was interesting when I jumped over to games because the industry was, at the time, known for being very loose with its coding practices. The ability to formulate documenting things before you build them was a little foreign.

Joel: That’s surprising! I thought they would have been leading it.

Ed: In some cases the games industry was and still is leading things, but on the other hand has also been a bit of “mad scientist’ mentality on a small game team. In the early days, those teams might be as small as just one programmer and two artists. Sometimes there’s a thought that too much documentation is going to bog you down and stop you from iterating quickly and finding the fun. To me that means you have to find the correct balance between a formal and informal approach. I can see how in astronomy a more formal approach is probably always going to be the best approach.

Joel: That’s very true. Let’s say I wrote a piece of software to analyze the data on a particular star. I might do it in such a way that is really customized to that one star, but then a few months later someone will ask if you can use that same software on another star that is larger and has a different gas. I’ll have to rewrite the code which just causes more problems down the line. I think a good practice every programmer should learn is to create modular and expandable pieces of code.

Joel: What years did you work on the Hubble?

Ed: I graduated from Dartmouth in 1985. I had a Computer Science and Physics major. I knew some acquaintances who were working on the Hubble contract down at the Goddard Spaceflight Center for Computer Sciences Corporation so I got hired on there. I also got a job interview at the Space Telescope Science Institute. I had to choose between those two cool opportunities, but I went more into the computer science direction than the astrophysics direction. For my first 2 or 3 years I worked directly on the Hubble ground system and then after that I supported the command and control software on the pay load operations control centers for scientific missions like COBE [Cosmic Background Explorer] and GRO [Compton Gamma Ray Observatory]. All together it was like 4 or 5 different scientific spacecraft that our software went to support.

Joel: And most of those went on to become NASA’s great observatories later on!

Ed: The Hubble was supposed to be launched within 2 years when I started and after Challenger it got pushed back. The Challenger accident was only 6 months after I joined the industry. That was a big blow for all of us.

Joel: I bet. It’s good that people don’t let tragedies like that stop them because it very well could have. People could have said “no more shuttle support” after that and progress would have come to a halt.

Ed: Hubble was almost like a custom built shuttle-supported entity that would be parked near the earth. When Challenger made shuttle support questionable, there was a lot of uncertainty about what was going to happen next. It took some time, but, as we know now, it all worked out.

Ed: Where did your interest in gaming begin?

Joel: For a long time, my big dream was to have a job in gaming. I was and still am an enormous gamer. I started playing Civ 1 when I was 12 and that’s what got me into the simulation genre. The fact that the Civilization series continues to this day is amazing.

Ed: Now that you mention it, Civ is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary too. The Hubble and the Civilization series have a similar trajectory. It sounds like you started playing Civ before I did. You mentioned Civ 1. I didn’t start until Civ 3.

Joel: My dad has always really been into technology. When I was born he already had a TRS-80 which I used to play some simple memory games.

Ed: The TSRS-80 was also the computer I started on. I was in high school at the time. That’s where I first started programming.

Joel: Nice! Since my dad was so into computers he was very encouraging of my growing interest in computers and games. When Civ 1 came out we had upgraded our computer to use the full graphics level. It’s impressive how the broad design concepts from Civ 1 are still there today. They’re just rearranged into a more elegant format, but it all still exists: happiness, population control, tech trees, etc. It’s now all done a lot less irritating than it was.

Ed: [Laughs] I can only hope a few advances have been made.

Joel: I like how it could all be done without changing the game concept at all. It’s amazing. Each iteration got better and better. When I saw that you guys added the Hubble into Gods & Kings as a Wonder I knew I had to reach out. It was great to see someone at Firaxis was interested in the Hubble Space Telescope. Now, it all just makes sense: the designer of the expansion also worked on the Hubble Telescope. It’s funny how that works. What was the decision to put Hubble into the game?

Ed: it all came about because we were trying to add some juicy items late in the tech tree that would help you towards the different victory types. We had everything figured out except something for the space race. We sat down and started thinking about what’s the thing that will help you find that planet that you’ll launch your spaceship towards. When we came up with the Hubble Telescope Wonder it all kind of clicked.

Joel: You know, we’re almost living the end of a Civ science victory in real life. There’s a good candidate earth-size planet in a habitable zone that Hubble has a shot at detecting. This will be routine for newer telescopes, but it’s kind of fun to see Hubble pioneer this field.

Ed: I love it! A Civ Science Victory that sets the stage to begin a game of Beyond Earth.

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A variety of upcoming events are planned to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. Check out hubble25th.com to see if activities are available in your area.