Spaceman: An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe - Mike Massimino (2016)

Part IV. The Door to Space

Chapter 13. SEEING BEYOND THE STARS

Imagine you’re standing on top of the Empire State Building in Manhattan holding a laser pointer. Now imagine I’m down in DC on top of the Washington Monument holding up a dime, and you’re able to hit that dime with your laser pointer. Now imagine that you and the Empire State Building are moving 17,500 miles per hour in one direction, and the Washington Monument and my dime are moving thousands of miles per hour away from you in a different direction, and you can still hold that spot on the dime even as we hurtle away from each other in opposite directions at incredible speeds.

That’s what the Hubble Space Telescope does. That’s how amazing it is. The Hubble stands right up there with the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China as one of the great engineering triumphs in human history. It’s named for Edwin P. Hubble, the astronomer who discovered that galaxies like ours exist outside the Milky Way and first established that the universe is expanding—the scientific breakthrough that led to the big bang theory. Scientists were theorizing about the advantages of putting a telescope in space almost as soon as we started building rockets. A space-based telescope would be able to observe light undistorted by the turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere. It would also be able to observe ultraviolet and infrared light, both of which get absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere. A space-based telescope would be able to see things and learn things that no human had ever dreamed of.

The Hubble does all of that and more. It takes thermal images of faraway planets, helping determine which ones might be capable of supporting carbon-based life. It measures the distance between stars with incredible accuracy. It’s shown us how fast the universe is expanding and exactly how old it is (13.8 billion years, in case you were wondering). Hubble discovered Pluto’s four new moons. It helped us learn about how stars are born and how black holes are formed. Much of what the telescope has discovered are answers to questions we didn’t even know how to ask. The Hubble is, without question, the single most important tool humankind currently has for understanding the universe and our place in it.

How the telescope works is nearly as incredible as what it does. There’s no propulsion on the telescope itself. It collects energy through solar arrays and uses that to power internal reaction wheels. The wheels spin, and the shifting mass of the spinning wheels points the telescope. There are six gyros that spin as well, keeping the telescope fixed on its target as it hurtles through space. The telescope itself is housed inside a spacecraft brilliantly engineered to protect it. As it orbits the Earth, going from day to night, the temperature on its outer surface swings from 200 degrees Fahrenheit to –200 degrees Fahrenheit and back again. Even under those punishing conditions, the inside of the telescope is controlled to a comfortable room temperature, keeping the instruments perfectly calibrated to perform their tasks.

When the Hubble launched, it was the biggest story in space exploration since the launch of the shuttle itself. It had been in development since the early 1970s and was supposed to be deployed in 1983; technical delays kept pushing it back. In December 1985, I was still working at IBM, rushing through Penn Station to catch my train, when I glanced at the newsstand and the cover of Life magazine caught my eye. It showed a spacewalking astronaut pulling open a tear in the fabric of space to reveal a distant yellow-orange nebula. The headline read: seeing beyond the stars: a preview of america’s biggest year in space. I grabbed a copy and read it right away on the train.

Because of the Challenger disaster, 1986 turned out to be a big year in space for all the wrong reasons. The shuttle was grounded, and the telescope’s deployment was pushed back again, to 1990. By the time it finally launched, what was supposed to be a $575 million project had ballooned into a nearly $1.8 billion project—and only after it launched did we discover it didn’t work. The telescope’s eight-foot-diameter mirror was defective, having been ground incorrectly. At its perimeter it was too flat by approximately 2.2 micrometers, which is a minuscule variation—less than the width of a human hair—but it was enough that the telescope was bending the light wrong and wasn’t able to focus. The imagery from the visible light spectrum, those cool pictures of faraway galaxies and nebulae that everybody wants for wall calendars and screen savers—the telescope wasn’t getting any of that. It was a disaster, a huge embarrassment for the space program.

Fortunately, we had the opportunity to fix it. Sophisticated, high-performance machines are temperamental. They need tender loving care to keep working right, and the Hubble is no different. That’s why it was built to be serviced by astronauts. When it was launched, NASA had budgeted for four servicing missions that would go up and make repairs and upgrade the telescope’s equipment as newer technology became available. After the problems with the mirror were discovered, the first of those servicing missions became a rescue mission.

The mirror itself couldn’t be replaced. At eight feet in diameter, it’s too big, and it isn’t modular like some of the other components of the telescope. But even though the mirror had been ground incorrectly, it had been ground incorrectly with such precision that we knew exactly how much it needed to be adjusted, and we were able to fit it with corrective lenses: We gave it glasses, essentially. The first Hubble serving mission, STS-61, was launched in 1993. That crew installed the COSTAR, or Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement, a device that put coin-sized mirrors into the light path to bring the telescope’s imagery into perfect focus. STS-61 was probably, up to that point, the most important shuttle flight in the history of the program.

The second servicing mission flew in February 1997. As intended, that mission was mostly routine maintenance, a 30-million-mile checkup. They replaced some worn-out equipment and installed two major new instruments: the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) and the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS). The third mission was originally supposed to be routine maintenance and upgrades as well, the 60-million-mile checkup. Then, in 1998, Hubble’s gyroscopes started to fail, one after another, much sooner than expected. Fine, hairlike electrical wires suspended in the fluid inside the gyros were corroding, something the engineers never anticipated. Of the six gyros on board, at least three needed to be working in order for the telescope to perform its functions. As they continued to fail, we put the Hubble into an emergency low-power mode, like putting a laptop to sleep. It was alive and it wasn’t falling out of the sky, but it wasn’t taking any pictures or doing any science.

The third servicing mission became an emergency flight to replace all six gyroscopes. Some of the scheduled upgrades had to be postponed while the telescope was rescued—again. We needed to add an extra servicing mission but didn’t have enough funding for five missions on the books. So Servicing Mission 3 became Servicing Mission 3A and Servicing Mission 3B, which was a bit of budgetary sleight of hand that allowed us to get everything approved. Servicing Mission 3A launched right before Christmas in 1999. That crew got Hubble working again. Now we had to put together Servicing Mission 3B to handle the remaining repairs that 3A didn’t complete, which meant that a whole new flight and a whole new crew had to be assembled from the ground up on short notice.

From the telescope’s deployment through all three servicing missions, no rookie had ever spacewalked on Hubble. The work was incredibly complex and the stakes were considered too high. If something went wrong on a station assembly flight, we always had the opportunity to go back and fix it. With Hubble there was no margin for error. Now, though, with so much EVA needed for the station, it was decided that the fourth spacewalking position on the team might go to someone new. The chance to spacewalk on Hubble was probably the most coveted assignment in the entire astronaut office. I wanted it the same as everyone, but I didn’t imagine I’d be in the running for it.

When I came back from Japan, I was transferred from robotics to the EVA branch, which was being run by John Grunsfeld, who’d just come back from spacewalking on Hubble Servicing Mission 3A. Grunsfeld is the smartest guy in the room, even at a place like NASA, where everybody’s already smart to begin with. MIT undergrad, University of Chicago PhD. He’s not a big guy, but he’s good in the suit nonetheless. He’s an astronomer, and he loves the Hubble Space Telescope as much as anyone has ever loved anything. He’s also mechanically inclined, which made him a perfect fit for the Hubble servicing missions. Even with all the astronauts who’d worked on Hubble in the past, Grunsfeld was well-known as the go-to expert on the telescope around the office. Shortly after I was transferred, Grunsfeld came up to me in the office one day and told me that he and Precourt wanted me to work on the development runs for Servicing Mission 3B.

Development runs are different from training runs. Training runs are to train the astronaut. Development runs are more for the engineers. Whenever they devise a new tool or a new method for tackling an issue—they’ve built a new ammonia tank, for example, or they need to repair and replace a cooling system—they need to try it out, test the device, test their hypothesis. The astronaut’s job is to get in the water and help them work out the new procedure. This works, this doesn’t. This is good, this is bad. Getting assigned to those development runs was the first step to getting assigned to the flight. There were other, far more experienced spacewalkers available to do them, but after Cold Lake, Precourt told Grunsfeld he wanted me. And I got the nod.

I knew it was a huge opportunity, but I had no idea how huge until the day we started. The briefings for the development runs were being held in the planning area outside the pool at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. Every other time I’d been called in for a development run, we had maybe a couple of mid-level engineers briefing us on whatever project they were doing. But the moment I set foot in that first Hubble development run, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. It wasn’t like any briefing or any meeting or any sim I had ever been to at NASA. They had the full-size mock-up of the telescope and different instruments and tools and machines laid out. There had to be at least thirty, forty people there. The veteran astronauts who’d flown on the first three servicing missions—several of them were on hand. This was the A-team.

The Hubble was built by Lockheed Martin in California, and several of its instruments were built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado. (It’s part of the same company that makes the Ball mason jars you have in your kitchen.) All their top Hubble people were there. The Hubble team from the Goddard Space Flight Center was there, too. Frank Cepollina, whom everyone called Cepi, ran the show at Goddard. He was well past retirement age, but he loved what he did, so he kept doing it. Cepi looked like one of my old Italian uncles: balding, always chewing a stick of gum. I think he did that to keep his jaw loose, as he also talked a lot, mainly about what needed to be done, how this mission was important, and why this telescope was the most valuable scientific instrument in the world.

I called Cepi the godfather of the Hubble. He was a visionary, a tough, energetic, workaholic type of guy. Goddard runs all kinds of science and weather satellites, and when Hubble came along, Cepi was the person who first saw the benefits of making a space telescope serviceable by astronauts. Normally it would have made sense for the Hubble operations to be run out of Houston, since that’s where the astronauts are, but Cepi had the expertise and the political clout to have the servicing piece of the Hubble headquartered at Goddard.

Like Cepi, the Hubble teams from Goddard and Ball and Lockheed Martin weren’t a bunch of kids fresh out of college. These were people in their sixties and seventies, the men and women who’d built the telescope twenty years before, who’d been through the construction delays and the previous servicing missions. The Hubble was their life’s work. Some of the engineers who were there for that meeting had been brought out of retirement to come back and help. Ron Sheffield was Lockheed Martin’s EVA and crew systems manager for Hubble. Back in the 1980s he’d led the team that built Hubble so that it could be serviceable, and he was still involved, teaching the astronauts how to perform every task, how to undo every connector, how to turn every bolt. He was a walking Hubble encyclopedia.

Going into that development run, it was like in the movie Armageddon when there’s an asteroid the size of Texas headed straight for us and every top scientist on Earth has gathered to figure out a plan and the president is waiting on the line because it’s that important—that’s how it felt. There was an electricity in the room, this feeling that something big was about to happen. Everyone was happy, smiling, energized, ready to dive in. I remembered that in his enrichment lecture Alan Bean had told us that being an astronaut would one day present us with the opportunity to do something great. I knew as soon as I walked in that this was the moment he was talking about. Right in front of me was the opportunity to do something truly remarkable with my life.

It also felt like traveling in a time machine back to the Apollo days. With the moon shot, NASA’s directive was to dream big and go for it. I quickly learned that the Hubble program was the same. Its budget was the envy of everyone else in the space program. Whatever you needed, you got. When it came to servicing and maintaining this piece of machinery, no expense was spared. But I could definitely tell, being in that room, that the extra money and attention and manpower came with added pressure: We could not screw this up. There was no margin for error.

We did these development runs through April and May. During one of the briefings we took a break, and I was standing under the mock-up of the telescope looking up at it. Grunsfeld was standing next to me. I said, “John, this mission is really important. I hope the run goes well.”

He said, “I hope it goes well for you, too.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

“You must realize you’re on the bubble.”

“What does that mean?”

“You’re on the bubble of getting assigned. You’re in the mix now. If these development runs go well, this is going to help.”

I was speechless. I’d been hoping to get assigned to a spaceflight, any spaceflight. But Hubble? That was too much to hope for. Grunsfeld was deeply involved in the program, and Steve Smith had flown multiple missions to the telescope. They were Hubble guys. That’s what they were known for. Bob Curbeam, who flew on a couple of station assembly flights, used to say, “Hubble guys are the Jedi. The coolest.” I wanted to be a Hubble guy. No rookie had ever done it, but there I was, standing there in front of the Neutral Buoyancy Lab mock-up of the telescope with the Hubble team around me and Grunsfeld putting it out there as a possibility. As crazy as the idea seemed in my head, Grunsfeld didn’t seem to think it was crazy at all.

When I was selected to be an astronaut, any chance to go to space would have satisfied my life’s ambition. But I have to say that once I was exposed to the Hubble mission, I wanted that flight more than any other. Everyone else wanted it, too. Every spacewalker at NASA had his eye on that Hubble flight, and many of them were proficient in the suit. I didn’t start out as the strongest spacewalker in my class, and I was still working to catch up. What I think Precourt and Grunsfeld both recognized was my determination. Every obstacle that was put in my way, every challenge that I faced, I doubled down and worked harder and figured it out and got past it. And that’s the kind of person you need on a mission where failure is not an option.

From the moment Grunsfeld told me I was in the mix, that telescope became my world. For the next two months I did everything I could to learn everything there was to know. I watched tapes of the previous servicing missions. I sought out the guys who’d spacewalked on Hubble before and picked their brains for information. I went and talked to the engineers from Goddard who’d been working on the telescope for the past twenty years, absorbing all of their knowledge and experience. We’d get a briefing on Friday for a development run happening Monday, and I would go in on Saturday to walk through the steps on the mock-up to make sure I knew everything and was completely prepared before going in the water. Even if it wasn’t my turn to go in the water, I cleared my schedule and went and observed.

The guy I leaned on the most was Steve Smith. In addition to helping me in the pool when I was learning to spacewalk, Steve was a good neighbor and friend and had been to Hubble twice. Since our daughters are the same age and we were neighbors, we were hanging out all the time, talking about spacewalking, talking about the telescope. I was constantly asking him questions, picking his brain.

Steve was also Charlie Precourt’s deputy, so he knew a few days before everyone else who was going to get assigned to flights. That August, on the Friday before my birthday, Precourt let Steve know that I was going to get assigned to the next servicing mission—the first rookie ever to spacewalk on Hubble. Normally you find out you’ve been assigned when Precourt calls you personally, but Steve asked if he could be the one to tell me. Precourt said, “You can tell him, but you can’t tell him until Monday.”

“But it’s his birthday on Saturday,” Steve said. “I can’t tell him on his birthday?”

“No.”

The whole weekend went by. We spent Saturday together, taking our kids to Home Depot to get wood for school projects, and Steve said nothing. Then, on Monday morning, I was getting ready for work and Carola came in and said, “Steve’s here.” I thought, What is Steve doing here at 7:30 in the morning? I went to the front door to meet him. He handed me an illustrated children’s book about the Hubble Space Telescope. I said, “What the heck is this for?”

“I think you better read up on this,” he said, “because you’re going to Hubble.”