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Telescopes from the Ground Up
Portrait of Lyman SpitzerCourtesy Office of Communications, Princeton University

In 1946, a 32-year-old Yale professor named Lyman Spitzer Jr. suggested putting a telescope into space.

His paper, titled “Astronomical Advantages of an Extra-Terrestrial Observatory,” noted that such a telescope would be able to detect types of light that were difficult or impossible to monitor on Earth and avoid the blurring effect of the planet’s atmosphere. Almost half a century later, his idea would become the Hubble Space Telescope.

Spitzer was born in Toledo, Ohio, the son of a paper-box manufacturer. He attended Yale and Cambridge, and did some college teaching. Then, during World War II, he joined a team working on underwater sound research. The team’s discoveries led to the development of sonar.

Spitzer joined the faculty of Princeton University after the war. He worked on nuclear fusion projects and founded the study of the interstellar medium — the sparse gas and dust located between stars. He helped discover that the dust and gas were the building blocks of new stars.

All the while, Spitzer continued to work on and push for his idea of an orbiting observatory, and in 1990 the Hubble Space Telescope finally took its place in the sky. On the day he died, at age 82, Spitzer had just finished a normal workday of analyzing Hubble data. Six years later, NASA honored his dedication and vision by naming its orbiting infrared telescope the Spitzer Space Telescope.

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