LESSONS FROM THE HUBBLE TELESCOPE
The Hubble Space Telescope is a large, space-based observatory which has revolutionized astronomy since its deployment in space in April 1990. Because it is located far above rain clouds, light pollution, and atmospheric distortions, the Hubble telescope provides crystal-clear views of the universe.
According to nasa.gov, Hubble has made more than 1.5 million observations over the course of its 32 year-existence. Over 19,000 peer-reviewed science papers have been published on its discoveries, and every current astronomy textbook includes its contributions. In short, Hubble has exponentially increased astronomers’ knowledge and understanding of the cosmos.
But the space telescope began its journey in the worst way possible. After 15 years of work that cost taxpayers $1.7 billion, NASA launched Hubble with a ‘spherically aberrated mirror’ (or, in layman’s terms, a faulty lens)! It was an avoidable mistake that caused massive embarrassment to the US space programme. And although engineers and astronauts finally managed to install the right mirrors on the telescope, the damage to NASA’s reputation was done.
A Failure Review Board conducted a long investigation and finally told Congress that the Hubble fiasco was ‘a leadership and human relations failure!’ Charles J. Pellerin, a senior astrophysicist who was part of the Hubble programme writes:
“Hubble attracted first-rate technical minds, (but) NASA managers relentlessly criticised and pressured the contractors. The contractors, operating from a place of relative powerlessness, subsequently withheld troubling information. NASA’s management of its contractor had been so hostile that the contractor, tired of the humiliation, simply stopped reporting technical problems.”
As a result, the wrong mirrors ended up being launched into space!
NASA’s Stephen Johnson said, “The causes of mission failure may have been technical, but the root causes and contributing factors were social and psychological. … My sense is that 80 to 95 percent of failures are ultimately due to human error and miscommunication.”
The Hubble incident is a reminder that human interactions ultimately trump technological advancement. It is important to remember in this age of increased digital interaction when there is an app for nearly everything, that it is the human factor — how well we understand and treat each other as human beings — that will determine success or failure.
Remember, people don’t care what you know till they know that you care.
Have a great week!