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Today, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum unveiled a new display featuring an important artifact. It's a camera, a camera that spent over 15 years in space.

It was inside the Hubble telescope, taking astoundingly beautiful images of celestial objects. Hubble started out as a national disgrace.

But as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, this camera turned Hubble into a triumph.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: The Hubble Space Telescope is still whizzing around the planet, but at the Air and Space Museum, you can see a full-scale model, and now, below it, is a display case. It holds something that looks a little like a black baby grand piano. This is the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. Earlier today, Ed Weiler saw it for the first time since 1993.

Mr. EDWARD WEILER (Associate Administrator, Science Mission Directorate, NASA): It was like seeing a long lost brother or sister.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So, is it fair to say that you love this thing?

Mr. WEILER: Love is a many-dimensioned word.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEILER: Let's put it this way. Without this thing, my career would have gone a very different direction, to say the least.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Ed Weiler is now head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Back in 1990, he was chief scientist for Hubble, when NASA launched the telescope and made a sickening discovery. The main mirror had a flaw. The images were fuzzy. This Hubble trouble made the telescope a laughing stock.

Mr. WEILER: You know, it was an intense period. I mean, we went from the top of Mount Everest at launch to the bottom of Death Valley a month later.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But Weiler says his team had hoped. They'd already started constructing a backup camera. They decided to compensate for Hubble's problem by changing four little, tiny mirrors, the size of nickels, in this replacement camera. In 1993, astronauts took it up.

Mr. WEILER: The first picture came back from this, and it was perfect. It was fixed, and that was just a cathartic moment that I'll - I put up there with the birth of my two children, history, I'll never forget.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The astronauts also installed a set of corrective optics called COSTAR for other instruments. That's now on display too. But Weiler says iconic images like the famous pillars of creation came from this camera.

Mr. WEILER: So in terms of our connection to the public, this is the camera that saved Hubble.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The camera returned to Earth in May after astronauts removed it so they can install a newer version. David Devorkin is a curator at the museum. He says this camera deserves to be enshrined here for our descendants.

Mr. DAVID DEVORKIN (Curator, Division of Space History, Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum): They will look at this and say, well, in the late 20th century, we devoted an enormous amount of very, very high talent and resources to learning more about the universe.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He'd love to put the actual Hubble telescope right next to it.

Mr. DEVORKIN: We're very, very happy to accept it if NASA decides to bring it home.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But with the Space Shuttle supposed to be retired next year, that is not likely. After Hubble's instruments break in five to 10 years, it's expected to be sent down to burn in the atmosphere with debris crashing into the Pacific.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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