Sometimes, when we see amazing images of exploding stars... or look deep into the heart of a galaxy... we may forget the efforts of the men and women whose dedication and effort brings us these new views of the universe.

And sometimes, when the media brings us headlines of the latest discoveries, we overlook the technology that makes the science possible.

In this segment...

How the telescope got its name and made it up into orbit... and how scientific principles, brought to life through innovative technology, make trailblazing research possible.

First its name: after many years of development as "AXAF", the advanced x-ray astrophysics facility, the telescope was renamed "Chandra", after one of America's leading astrophysicists.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, known as "Chandra" for short, was born in India.

Early in his career he used Albert Einstein's equations to calculate that there was an upper limit to white dwarf stars.

Larger than 1.4 solar masses and they'd collapse to form neutron stars... Larger still, black holes!

He studied in England, where one leading astronomer rejected his ideas.

Chandra immigrated to the United States in 1937, and joined the University of Chicago, becoming a popular teacher.

In 1983 he won a nobel prize for his work on the life and death of stars.

Chandra was one of the first scientists to combine astronomy and physics... in the discipline now known as "astrophysics"...

Segue to training shots of STS Commander, Col. Eileen Collins and crew, pre-launch suit up, and then in the White House:

The Chandra Observatory made it up into orbit as the result of another "first."

The telescope was to ride into space aboard the shuttle "Columbia", commanded-for the first time-by a female astronaut, Colonel Eileen Collins.

So add a special White House ceremony with the then-president to the usual hectic round of pre-launch visits to the spacecraft being prepped for take-off.

But getting to the launch pad in fact had taken almost 50 years!

1949-the first rocket flight of an x-ray detector... Aboard a captured v-2...

1962-the first true science mission, using a simple strip chart.

Super (over still)
Riccardo Giacconi (1931- )

Riccardo Giacconi and other pioneers become convinced of the value of x-ray astronomy.

1970, the young Harvey Tananbaum, fresh from graduate school, travels to help launch the first x-ray satellite from a most unusual location...

Name super:
Director, Chandra X-ray Center

Harvey Tanabaum
I was just a veritable kid. It was the first project that I worked on after graduate school. It was an opportunity to be in on the ground floor of the first satellite that was completely devoted to studying X-rays. We put it all together, tested it. I was sent over to a launch tower off the coast of Kenya. It was December of 1970 when we launched. The launch was December 12th. which was Kenyan Independence Day, and the satellite was named "Uhuru" which was a Swahili word for "Freedom." It was a time of great excitement. Sometimes I think when you are young you don't realize that some of the most important you might do might be what you're doing right then and there.

One of "uhuru's" first discoveries was a powerful x-ray source, cygnus x-1, which researchers thought gave the best evidence of a black hole.

Now the race was on to build better instruments...

You needed special mirrors... And special detectors.



1990 ROSAT


Increasingly sophisticated satellites followed from the United States, Europe and Japan...

But already there'd been 20 years of work on designs that were to become "Chandra", the most capable x-ray telescope yet.

For such a mission to be successful you'd need super-sensitive detectors or cameras...

Special gratings to select particular wavelengths of light...

Incredibly smooth mirrors...

And a dependable spacecraft to house them all.

Bottom super
HRC-high resolution camera

Let's get up unusually "close up and personal" to one of the 2 cameras on board Chandra.

Engineer and astronomer, Steve Murray, helped develop the innovative design over 2 decades. He showed us a flight test model of the "high resolution camera" in the lab which built it.

Name super:
P.I. High Resolution Camera, Chandra

Stephen Murray
So, if we come over this way... First thing to do is be careful of all the wires and the tight spaces. And this is the latch on the chamber... I'm going to pull this back and if you just peek in... into this chamber now as we open it, you can see here the engineering model. Up on the top is the spectroscopy detector and you can see the three pieces alongside each other, and then lower down you can just see the diamond shape of the filter that's in front of the imaging detector and those are exactly the same size, exactly the same components, exactly the same wires, as we have in the model. Now I think that's just about enough time. And we want to make sure we get this thing closed up. And I am going to have to go and turn on the vacuum pumps again so that we can get this thing back down to a space environment, and safely restored. It's almost like opening up the escape hatch on a submarine and resealing it. OK...

Bringing light down to the "H.R.C." requires mirrors that are both unusually smooth and unusual in shape.

Place super
Kitt Peak National Solar Observatory, AZ

Most optical telescopes-like Kitt Peak's huge Mcmath-Pierce solar telescope-bounce light off mirrors placed more or less at right angles to the incoming rays.

But x-rays are of such high energy that they'd mostly pass right through mirrors arranged like that.

Chandra's mirrors are arranged so x-rays skip over them, like stones across the surface of a pond.

Small imperfections would be disastrous.

Labs and workshops across america polish glass and bend metal.

Raytheon grinds the smoothest mirrors ever built.

Then the mirrors are coated with iridium, more reflective than gold.

Eastman Kodak puts them all together.

The result? Mirrors with a resolution so great you could read a stop sign 12 miles away...

Place super
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL

Then, more tests, at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, with its x-ray calibration facility. NASA Marshall managed the entire project, and was the only place in the world where the mirrors could be put through their paces.

Ball aerospace packages up the science instruments...

TRW integrates it all into a spacecraft.

Getting started there'd been the usual budget crunches...

The spacecraft had to be redesigned.

To save money and avoid costly shuttle servicing flights a new orbit would take it high above earth, almost a third of the way to the moon... Which actually was a "plus."

Earth would get in the way of observations much less... But then again, everything would have to work right. There'd be no second chances.

That meant everyone had to keep the spacecraft and instruments like the miniature transmission gratings incredibly clean.

Name super:
Research Scientist, Center for Space Research, MIT

Kathy Flanagan
What are these diffraction gratings? As you can see they look like small wafers, or foils of gold, about 1 inch square. But in fact the important structures on these gratings are much more complicated than simple foil. This is a grating blown up 16,000 times. It is, in fact, tall bars of gold standing on a plastic membrane. The bars are so close together and so fine that a wavelength of light is larger than the distance between two of these bars. In fact, if we blow up a common household object, we'll see this. Do you have any idea what this is?

If you guessed that it was the edge... cross-section of a human hair, you guessed right. Even a hair is gigantic relative to the size of a grating on its important scale. So that we had to keep the gratings clean at all times so that contaminants such as dust and hair and other huge objects would not damage or contaminate them.

With human hair and dust a threat to the mission, instrument builders like Kathy and Steve had to do their work in conditions cleaner than hospital operating rooms!

Stephen Murray
I call this the "Box from Hell" because of the long hours that we had to spend trying to put things together. If I push this box out a little bit and give you a sort of an idea of what our posture is like when we're working. When we are working from above then our arms are in like this, and we are sort of on our toes and bent over... to get down to the bottom. And when we are working on the bottom, then our arms go in like this and we're sitting with our knees sort of half-bent so that we can be down at the right level and so it's sort of like a torture chamber. (Laughs)

Finally, February 1999--Chandra arrives at the Kennedy Space Center...

And is packed snugly into the shuttle's cargo bay.

13.8 meters long, the size of a moving van, this was the largest payload to date.

July 23, 1999... a perfect night launch lit up the sky around cape canaveral...

Mission control announcer:
...and liftoff of Columbia, reaching new heights for women and X-ray astronomy...

A perfect deploy from the space shuttle... and Chandra was on its way.

Female astronaut:
And it's so quiet... but I will tell you there is nothing so beautiful as Chandra sailing off on its way to work...

Safely away from the shuttle the solar panels deploy... Chandra uses only 2 kilowatts of power for all its systems, about the same as a hair-dryer here on earth.

Cambridge, MA

Then it was time for researchers and engineers alike to gather at the operations control center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to wait impatiently to see if all those years and all the hard work had paid off.

Astronomers call it "first light"-the first data seen from a new telescope.


Since then, Chandra has continued to send back images that have revolutionized our view of the heavens...

...new knowledge about stars and galaxies and black holes that would surely have gratified Chandra himself... a rich reward for all the men and women-scientists and engineers and managers and support staff-who kept the faith across the decades.