Hope and the Hubble Space Telescope – Steve Leete

Story/Message: Steve Leete

Today’s service is about a special telescope. I have a telescope here, that can be used to look at stars, the Moon, planets, and other things like nebulas and galaxies, from here on the ground. It’s only useful at night, when it isn’t cloudy, because when it is cloudy you can’t see through the clouds, and when it is daytime you can’t see the dim stars because the sky is so bright – except you can see the Moon, or Venus, because they are so very bright. 

I have a model of the Hubble Space Telescope, or HST. I used this when I was working for NASA on Hubble Servicing Missions. It has numbers and letters to help us remember what is behind every door, because the astronauts open up these doors and replace the things that are inside. I used this a lot, which is why it is a little beat up. I’m going to talk about HST more later in the service. 

Here is a model of the space shuttle. This white part with wings is the orbiter, and it is the part that was up in space with the astronauts and HST during our servicing missions. The big orange part is an external fuel tank, and the two long white cylinders on the side are the solid rocket boosters. The space shuttle is how our astronauts got up to where HST was in orbit around the Earth, and brought all the spare parts and tools they needed to work on HST.

Hubble, or HST, launched on a space shuttle thirty years ago this past April, so it just had a big anniversary. It can look at stars whenever it wants, because it is above the atmosphere. It takes really wonderful pictures of galaxies and planets, and I’ll show you some of them soon.  

Have you ever seen the TV show or books with Curious George? One episode of the TV show was called Grease Monkey in Space. Here is a toy, it’s Curious George in his spacesuit, with his very own rocketship. In that show, Curious George goes up in a rocket to a space telescope just like HST, and goes out in a spacesuit to fix it, just like our astronauts. The show came out around the time we were getting ready for the last servicing mission in 2009. The crew of astronauts really loved that Grease Monkey in Space episode, and they would keep a Curious George toy around when they did underwater training in spacesuits. As the two astronauts would go underwater, and another astronaut in the control room was reading them a list of things to remember, he or she would end with, “And one more thing – be a good little spacewalking monkey!” 

A few days ago, a rocket launched from Wallops Island Virginia, sending four satellites into orbit. One of your friends, Theodore, drove all the way out there with his family to see it. I talked to him about it. 

A couple of times a year, NASA sends a cargo ship full of supplies to the International Space Station. It’s called Cygnus, and the rocket is called Antares. It’s pretty exciting to see! If they launch at night, you can see it from Silver Spring, even though it is a three hour drive away. Pretty cool! 

And now let’s listen to a fun song by a singing group I used to sing with, The Chromatics, called HST Bop.

Homily  (Steve Leete)   VIDEO

The Hubble Space Telescope, or HST. It is heroic, it is tragic. And it is a source of hope.  In 1990, NASA had gone through the Challenger accident with the loss of seven astronauts, and Hubble was one of the first space shuttle missions three years after Challenger. Hubble launching was a ‘We are back!” moment for the agency, and for America. Its story has a classic element of Greek tragedy, in which a hero ventures out, but has a fatal flaw, based on hubris, which is its undoing. The optical engineers who formed its enormous 8-foot diameter glass mirror were so confident of their abilities, that when they had an indication that the final mirror was flawed, they ignored it, and convinced themselves that it was fine. Later, after it was already on-orbit, we found that in their hubris they had made it wrong.  The hero had feet of clay! Did NASA have the right stuff anymore? 

Those who originally made Hubble could think of little more than bringing it back to Earth and replacing the mirror, a daunting process that would be very hard to do. But a new group came in, who invented a clever way to overcome the problem. They came up with a way to make and assemble new hardware that would fix the flaw. They did this work with the eyes of the world upon them, with people questioning their every move. The workers were under immense pressure to get this right, or else. The reputation of NASA, and to some extent the USA, was in question. 

A crew of astronauts, including Story Musgrave and the first female spacewalker, Kathryn Sullivan, flew up on the space shuttle in 1993. They installed replacement parts and made other repairs and upgrades, over five days of spacewalks. The fixes to the optical problem were built into two large science instruments, the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and the COSTAR, corrective optics for space telescope. The instrument builders figured out how to put in small mirrors that would intercept the optical beam where it was focused down to a small beam, bounce the light off a small mirror that had just the right shape to fix the optical problem, and direct the corrected beam into the down-stream instruments. Hubble had been built with the intent of replacing instruments, and the new hardware was installed using procedures that were developed while the telescope was being built. But it was those astronauts, flying a vehicle that had previously blown up during launch, who risked their lives to bring Hubble up to its potential. They are certainly part of the team of heroes.

Meanwhile, I was working for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center during all of this, but was not working on this project. I started at Goddard in late 1987, which was after the Challenger accident in January 1986. I was working on the COSMIC Background Explorer, COBE, as the shuttle was returning to flight. I was working on an instrument for the Cassini mission to Saturn during the first Hubble Servicing Mission, and on Landsat 7 during the Second one. But I had watched on NASA TV, glued to the screen, during the spacewalks, or Extra-Vehicular Activities, of the first mission. I was a fan, but not involved yet. 

In 1998 I got onboard the Hubble train, winning a position on the Extra-vehicular Activity, or EVA team for the third servicing mission. That first crew I worked with was commanded by Curt Brown. Scott Kelly was the pilot, went on to do a one-year mission on the International Space Station, which he chronicles in Endurance, which I highly recommend. Jean-François Clervoy was the Mission Specialist. Steve Scott was the EVA commander, in charge of coordinating and leading himself and the other three spacewalking crewmembers. John Grunsfeld was a PhD astrophysicist, who also enjoyed building computers and inventing new ways of doing things. Claude Nicolier was a Swiss fighter pilot and ESA astronaut. Michael Foale was the last EVA astronaut, and a bit of a celebrity. He had been on the Soviet space station Mir when it was crashed into by a Progress resupply ship that malfunctioned, and the crew of three had to save themselves from death by quickly sealing of the module that had been breached, then stop the Mir from spinning out of control. 

That third mission was split in two, and the first half turned into an emergency repair mission, SM-3A. A problem with the gyroscopes led to them failing prematurely, putting the Hubble out of commission, unable to point at stars. 

During that mission, and the one that followed, my team’s role was to document in detail everything the astronauts had to do, what they would do if anything went wrong along the way, and to help them train with flight hardware in Maryland and with mockups underwater at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston, Texas near the Johnson Space Center. My second mission, SM-3B, involved some significant drama. We had to replace the power control unit, which was similar to a heart transplant on a person. SM-3A included replacing the main computer, which was sort of like a brain transplant, but that was not too different from trading out any other electronics box, which was routine. Replacing the PCU was different – you had to shut down every single electron flowing anywhere on the vehicle. It was like making the patient die, replacing part of the cadaver, and then bringing it back to life again. If we took too long, some parts would get so cold that when you applied electricity again, they would short out or explode because the parts would be broken by getting that cold. We were all pretty nervous about it, including the NASA Administrator. 

To prepare, John Grunsfeld used a very high fidelity mockup of the PCU, with the three dozen big round connectors on the left side, roughly 3 feet by 4 feet in size. Every day, for several months before the shuttle launch, he would practice the whole sequence of disconnecting all the heavy-duty cables from the box, changing out the old box for the new one, and then connecting all the cables to the new box. He told us that after a while he hated doing it, but he would force himself because he knew that the muscle memory would help him do it right in space, even if he was tired, distracted, upset, or not feeling well. The day came in space for John to do it, and he and his partner got into their spacesuits, and were in the airlock ready to go outside, when he felt water in his suit. A valve had malfunctioned, and he had to come back into the shuttle, and get into a different suit. After some difficulties, he got suited up again, and successfully left the airlock to get started an hour late. Fortunately, all that practice paid off, and he got everything right, and made it through the most stressful day in space he’d ever had. 

After the Shuttle Columbia accident, the last servicing mission was cancelled, but Hubble had a champion, a savior. Barbara Mikulski said, 

I will fight in the United States Senate this year to fund a servicing mission to Hubble by 2008, a mission that would potentially increase Hubble’s power and efficiency by a factor of 10 and allow us to look back almost to the beginning of the universe.

She persevered, and succeeded. On the last servicing mission in 2009, the Hubble team again faced enormous challenges, and met them all. John Grunsfeld and his crew repaired two instruments in space, replaced three other instruments, replaced all the gyroscopes, plus several other things. It was captured by a Stereo IMAX movie camera, and made into a wonderful 3D IMAX film. 

In 2004, James Van Allen, the discoverer of the Van Allen radiation belts that encircle the Earth, wrote: 

The follow-on space shuttle program has fallen far short of the Apollo program in its appeal to human aspirations. The launching of the Hubble Space Telescope and the subsequent repair and servicing missions by skilled crews are highlights of the shuttle’s service to science.

One source of hope from Hubble is that we humans can accomplish great things if we are dedicated and determined, and work together to achieve. It is also that even if we make mistakes, if we don’t give up, but work hard to correct them, we can redeem ourselves, keep our promises, and achieve our goals. It also shows the value of keeping meticulous records, methodical trouble-shooting, hard-nosed engineering, practice/practice/practice, teamwork, bravery, and being calm under pressure. 

The Hubble Space Telescope is special. While NASA and other space agencies have launched several kinds of telescopes into space to observe the cosmos at different wavelengths of light, they are known only to a small number of people who follow such things. The exception to this is Hubble, which is known by the public to a much greater extent. I think it is because people like John Grunsfeld have repeatedly risked their lives, twice after a crew was lost in a shuttle accident, to fix Hubble. As John Grunsfeld said, “Here we were, the only seven humans in space, repairing a telescope whose only purpose is to enrich the minds of people on planet Earth and increase our understanding of the workings of the universe. I can think of no better peaceful use of space for all humankind.“

A phrase used by the Hubble team so often it is almost a punch-line, is that Hubble is unlocking the mysteries of the universe. Because of the servicing missions, it was not only restored to its originally intended capability, and maintained as things wore out, but the addition of new instruments, computers, power systems, and recording devices made it progressively better over time, producing higher resolution and sharper images, better spectrographs, and more science discoveries per year as it got older. As John Grunsfeld put it, “Hubble isn’t just a satellite; it’s about humanity’s quest for knowledge.”

Images taken by Hubble have been acclaimed for their beauty, and been found inspiring by huge numbers of people. It has taken beautiful images of Mars, …, Jupiter, …, comet fragments striking Jupiter, …, other galaxies, …., exploding stars known as planetary nebulae, …, star forming regions in nebulae like the ‘Pillars of Creation’, …, the first ever proof of a supermassive black hole at the center of another galaxy, …, the mind-blowing Hubble Deep Field image showing a couple of stars plus an enormous number of galaxies near, far, and extremely far away, …, and the even better Hubble Ultra Deep Field with newer, better imagers. Hubble data helps show that the mass of other galaxies is more than the sum of what we can see in ‘normal matter’, leading to the conclusion that the rest of the mass is mysterious dark matter. Observations by Hubble of Class 1A Supernova exploding stars, especially a single very distant once seen by Hubble, led to the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, that it will never slow down and fall back in on itself, and that another mysterious component of the universe called Dark Energy is the cause of all that. 

Humans have a deep-seated need to understand their past, present and future. They want to know how things are now, not just nearby, but as far as the eye and their imagination can take them, what is out there? And how did the universe as we know it come to be? What are the origins of the universe, our galaxy, our solar system, our planet, life, and us? And what is our future – as individuals, as a group, country, civilization, as life on Earth, and even beyond that? There is also a desire for a common understanding of these things, for these to be things we can agree on, to form a common point of reference between diverse people that can bind us together. 

The Hubble and astronomy cannot answer all of these questions, but it can check a lot of these boxes. When an instrument like Hubble is the source, and it is broadly recognized as a trusted source of truth, when the means by which its observations lead to scientific understanding of the universe, its origins and its future are provided to the public in an understandable way they can accept, it can bring us together as humanity with a common understanding of these fundamental facts. 

As I see it, the scientific endeavor may be flawed, kind of like the Hubble mirror, but if scientists are motivated to be truthful, if curiosity is rewarded, and the scientific community continues to work together to progressively improve our understanding of answers to all these important questions, an era will come in which we can achieve the dream of a solid, universal understanding of matters which used to divide us, and will instead unite us, as humanity. The drama, hard-won respect and admiration, and the incredible accomplishments of the Hubble Space Telescope, not to mention the people that made all this happen, can help lead to the unity and fellowship of humankind that we all hope for. 

Amen, and blessed be. 

Reflection Question:

  • How does an understanding of the origins of the universe, based on science, give you a sense of your place in the cosmos?