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Let it go, and make room for the new

From the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse to the Hubble Space Telescope, time marches on and so must science.

Daniel Caton

Special to The Observer

Published: Thurday, July 3, 1999


Page 13A

A few hundred miles east of Charlotte the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is making its retreat from the sea.

The company that is moving it just left a job where it moved an entire building to preserve it. Such adventures are apparently unfamiliar to Charlotte, where restoration is displaced by demolition. But perhaps that is best. After all, can we really keep everything we ever build forever? Maybe we have to give it up to make room for the new.

As the International Chimney engineers were making the last preparations for the lighthouse move in early June, I sat in the audience for a rousing speech by another engineering wizard, Dan Goldin, chief administrator of NASA.

To say Goldin is a visionary is an understatement. He revealed notions of ``Coke can''-sized bio-spacecraft that would go to another world, evolve to build the facilities to fabricate its next generation, and thus fan out to explore the galaxy. This stuff was beyond science fiction.

He also urged the ``Hubble Huggers'' among the thousand or so astronomers present to prepare to give up the aging space telescope and turn our vision to greater instruments for the future. He urged us to ``Let it go!''

This was perhaps a tough crowd for the message, being that we were gathered at the centennial celebration of the American Astronomical Society. This summer meeting was hosted by the University of Chicago, where the AAS was started by the pioneering telescope builder George Ellery Hale. The young Edwin Hubble would pass through here on the way to the discoveries that would lead to the current satellite being named in his honor. It was where Hale built the 40-inch Yerkes telescope, the largest at the time, yet smaller than the next he was already planning. And the next, the Hale telescope at Mt. Palomar. Let it go.

A few hundred miles above Charlotte another aging, but younger beacon lies at shores eroding its position. A receiver of light instead of a transmitter, the Hubble Space Telescope rides in its 90-minute orbit, just outside most of the Earth's atmosphere. Friction -- the same force that removes the sand at Hatteras -- robs the telescope of its orbital energy, causing it to drop at a rate of about 17 feet per day, comparable to the creep of the lighthouse, and equal to the diameter of the Hale telescope. Like the lighthouse, the telescope must be periodically moved away from the lapping of a fluid that both defines why it is there and challenges its presence.

The relocation of the lighthouse was controversial, but scientific logic won over sentiment and hopeless plans of an endless expense of fighting the sea. The current position is historical and scenic, but we must let it go. A study by the National Academy of Sciences (the group to which Hubble was elected its youngest member) recommended the move and Congress funded it.

The academy had been founded in 1863, seven years before the construction of the current lighthouse that it would later recommend moving. It was established during the Civil War, when many inventors and scientists offered their services to the country. Its charge is to ``investigate, examine, experiment and report on any subject of science or art.'' It is interesting to note that the academy was formed out of a conflict that still draws resentments and bickering over flags and such. We must let that go, too.

Like the government bulldozing sand to the sea, NASA too is weary of the expense of running the low-orbit Hubble Space Telescope -- a quarter billion a year to operate it. So, in a decade or so we will give up pushing it back from the sea and move it to a new location, the Smithsonian. The Hubble Huggers will at least be able to touch it. It will be replaced by the Next Generation Space Telescope, a cheaper-to-run instrument to be placed farther from Earth, in an unserviceable but stable position.

The lighthouse will be rededicated next Memorial Day. Hale would be proud, for the achievement of technology and for our country. He was instrumental in guiding America's scientific development efforts during World War I, under the National Academy's Research Council, the advisory arm to the government. And Captain Hubble would be proud as well, having volunteered for Officers Reserve Corps, and training officers during that war.

The oceans creep in and lighthouses are moved. Old buildings are leveled for the new. Old telescopes yield to newer technology.

Let it go.

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