The Very First Light

From rough sketch to front-page news scientist, John Mather, and writer, John Boslough, tell the story of the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, which, like other scientific endeavors, had its share of failure and success in THE VERY FIRST LIGHT: THE TRUE INSIDE STORY OF THE SCIENTIFIC JOURNEY BACK TO THE DAWN OF THE UNIVERSE.

First proposed in September, 1974, COBE was redesigned several times and approved by NASA on March 1, 1976. Then the fun began. Trailblazing technology, including a container with 1,476 pounds of liquid helium to cool the instruments, failed miserably. After years of intense problem-solving COBE was ready for a shuttle flight to place it into earth orbit.

On January 27, 1986, the shuttle CHALLENGER exploded. The nation was devastated and shuttle flights were cancelled indefinitely. It was quickly determined that COBE could fly on a Delta rocket but would have to lose half its weight and girth to achieve it (5,000 pounds and 7 feet of diameter). The pressure from NASA, eager for a success, became intense. Engineering miracles were performed, and expected, daily.

On November 18, 1989, COBE was launched and reached orbit, but that was just the beginning. Its three instruments began to send back data to Earth for analysis: the Far Infrared Absolute Spectrophotometer (FIRAS) measured the spectrum of the background radiation, finding evidence to support the Big Bang theory; the Diffuse Infrared Background Experiment (DIRBE) collected infrared radiation (heat), presenting a clear picture of the galactic core. The Differential Microwave Radiometer (DMR) determined the anisotrophy (non-uniformity) of the background radiation, showing the universe is a quadrupole or that it has four distinct points.

Interspersed with astronomical history, and ending with a plea for funding disguised as a paean to mankind’s insatiable curiosity, THE VERY FIRST LIGHT is a fascinating glimpse of science-at-work and of the often sublime achievements that are the result when we reach for the stars.