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

Part VI. Worth the Risk

Chapter 21. FROM THE ASHES

The first time I met Drew Feustel, I thought, This guy’s gonna be a pain in the ass. Drew was class of 2000, the Bugs. Shortly after Columbia, he was scheduled to go through space walk training, and as part of my new role in the EVA branch I was paired up with him for his first runs in the pool, the same way Steve Smith had been paired up with me. I knew how difficult the training was and I wanted to help the new guy as much as I could. A few days before his first run, I called him up and said, “Hey, you want to go out to the pool and go over some things?”

He kind of blew me off. “Nah, I think I’ve got it.”

Then, the night before the run, I bumped into him in the parking lot at the grocery store. He was sitting in his car, this classic BMW roadster, listening to music with his two boys. I said, “You want to hit the pool early?”

He shrugged. “Eh, okay. Whatever you wanna do.”

I said, “Look, this is important. This is your run. I’m only trying to help.”

“Yeah, yeah. Okay. I’ll be there.”

He wasn’t there. I went in early the next morning and sat around waiting. Drew showed up late. We rushed through the briefing, and the whole time I was thinking, This guy’s gonna screw everything up. He’s gonna be terrible. Then we got in the water. He was unbelievable. My first time in the water I struggled just to get around. Drew did everything perfectly, and the whole time he was loose and confident—a natural.

Drew Feustel wasn’t your typical astronaut. He wasn’t a military guy. He grew up outside Detroit and didn’t have the grades to get into college, so he went to work as an auto mechanic. It turned out that while he wasn’t great at sitting in a classroom, he was a genius with anything mechanical. Give him a lamp or an alarm clock or the engine to an F-16, and he could take it apart and fix it and put it back together better than before. He was a real treadhead. His BMW roadster? He’d rebuilt it himself. While working as a mechanic Drew graduated from community college and then went to Purdue, where he met his wife, Indi, and from there went to Queen’s University in Canada, where he got a doctorate in geological sciences.

Eventually I got to know Drew better and I saw that he was cool and laid-back and knew what he needed to do and didn’t beat himself up about the small stuff. But that took a while. For a long time after that first run I thought he was just cocky. I didn’t know that he was one of the greatest guys I was ever going to meet, or that our friendship would be something I’d need to get through the lowest moment of my entire life.

Once Mike Griffin came on board and gave Grunsfeld the nod to start thinking about Hubble, I started feeling hopeful. There were quiet rumblings around the office: “Hubble’s coming back.” I was getting calls from the team at Goddard, asking me what I knew and if I was going to be involved. For over a year we’d been using the robot mission to hold the team together. Now there was a sense that we were really going back to work. In July 2005, STS-114 flew, the first flight since Columbia. Everyone was anxious. It didn’t go well. The shuttle made it home safely, but there was still foam coming off the external fuel tank. We were grounded for another year while they continued to work on the problem. Despite the setback, we kept moving forward with Hubble.

After 109, I was disappointed that I hadn’t been upgraded to EV1, and it turned out I wasn’t the only one who didn’t make the cut. There were six other spacewalkers in my class who did well on their first flights but still weren’t reassigned. We needed more EVA leaders. Right before Columbia, Dave Wolf was named the new EVA branch chief. He noticed the problem and came to me and wanted to talk about how to fix it. I suggested that we have a program to help junior spacewalkers get upgraded. He liked the idea. “Great,” he said. “Why don’t you head that up.” That was something I learned about the astronaut office over the years: If you propose something, you’d better be ready to run it. Dave gave me an office in the EVA branch and put me in charge of putting the program together and managing it.

Then, in the fall of 2005, Dave Wolf took two months of personal leave and tapped me to fill in for him as temporary head of the EVA branch, which put me in a position to attend the astronaut office staff meetings. At one of these meetings it was announced that Chuck Shaw, a former flight director, would be heading up a panel to explore the possibility of going back to Hubble. The rumblings were now official.

Kent Rominger had taken over for Charlie Precourt as head of the astronaut office shortly before the Columbia accident. Rommel was a Navy pilot, a great guy, and a strong leader during some difficult years. He and I had been close friends ever since we served as family escorts together for John Glenn’s return flight in 1998. Shaw’s committee was going to need a crew representative, and it was Rommel’s job to name someone for it. There was a lot of jockeying around that appointment. The people who’d disappeared when Hubble was canceled, suddenly they were back, poking around, offering to help. But Grunsfeld and some of the other Hubble guys went to Rommel and told him, “Mass is the guy you should put on this.” I had carried the flag for Hubble when it seemed there was no hope it would ever come back. Rommel recognized that. He put me and Grunsfeld on the panel and said, “Go to the meetings and do everything you can to help them bring the mission back on.”

The main question Shaw’s panel had to answer was: How do we make sure the crew gets home alive? With the shuttle at Hubble’s orbit, we’d have the ability to survey the thermal protection system for damage using the robot arm and the special inspection boom. We’d have the ability to repair that damage up to a certain point, using the different techniques we’d been developing since Columbia. What Hubble was missing was the space station, where we had a safe haven in the case of a debris strike we couldn’t recover from.

The solution we came up with was a rescue mission, a second shuttle on standby on the launchpad with a crew ready to fly. The only time two shuttles had ever been seen on the launchpad at the same time was in the movie Armageddon—and that was make-believe, faked with CGI. We were officially in Hollywood action-movie territory now. If necessary, the two shuttles would rendezvous, payload bay to payload bay, link up with the robot arm, and the crew would spacewalk two by two, translating along the robot arm from one shuttle to the other.

The other question was how long we could keep the crew alive at that altitude to wait for a rescue. “Survival” was a word you heard in those meetings. Shackleton mode. How long the crew could survive came down to how long we could stretch our consumables—food, water, fuel, power. You have only a certain number of days’ worth of these, and you want to extend those days as much as possible. We looked at how many systems we could shut down to conserve energy. We’d have to turn off the heat, like in Apollo 13. It was going to be cold. What were we going to eat? What’s the most nutrient-rich food you can eat without using power to cook? We brought in nutritionists to craft a survival diet. Nuts and protein bars and water—that was basically all we’d have. Since the water we drink is a by-product of the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen we burn for fuel, those would run out at the same time. We estimated that if catastrophic damage was found on the first day of the mission, we could survive for twenty-one days while waiting to be rescued. But with every passing day operating at full power, that timeline would contract to closer to eleven days. Once we ran out of power and water, that would be it. The carbon dioxide filters would quit working, and we would slowly asphyxiate—we’d go to sleep and never wake up.

Of course, launching two shuttles would expose two crews to potentially fatal conditions, but at a certain point it came down to probability. What are the odds of taking a hit? What are the odds of that hit being catastrophic and not repairable? Now, what are the odds of that happening twice in a row? Once we did the math on that, the probability got pretty low. It wasn’t zero, but it was small enough that we could live with it.

Up at Goddard, Frank Cepollina and the rest of the Hubble team were working on the same mission from the telescope’s point of view: What needed to be fixed? What was feasible? What tools would be needed? Since I’d worked so closely with Goddard on the previous Hubble mission, I served as the liaison between the two groups. In Houston, Hubble was one of many programs competing for attention. At Goddard, Hubble was their heart and soul, their bread and butter. They’d never lost hope in it, not for a minute, and they were already itching to get started. Cepi wanted astronauts. He wanted spacewalkers assigned to the mission so Goddard could move ahead with testing and planning. Cepi was the kind of guy who had no problem being aggressive and pushing hard for what he wanted. I’ll never forget, he came down to Houston for a meeting with Rommel and told him, “I need a crew.”

Rommel said, “I can’t give you a crew. You don’t have a flight.”

And that’s the way it was: We were in this strange limbo. We had this huge team of people working around the clock on a mission that didn’t officially exist at a time when flight operations hadn’t officially resumed. But we never let that deter us. Grunsfeld and Cepi and everybody else, we kept pushing. There was a feeling that we were going to make this flight happen through sheer force of will no matter what obstacles were put in our way.

Late November, we received authorization to start doing development runs in the pool. Rommel needed to put someone in charge of them. Again, Grunsfeld and the older Hubble guys recommended me for it. I’d dreamed of being a Hubble guy, one of the Jedi, and I was honored and humbled that they now saw me as one of their own. Between the robot mission, my work on Shaw’s panel, and being the liaison with Goddard, they knew that nobody was as close to that final servicing flight as I was. Rommel called me into his office and told me I was in charge of the runs. Based on the work I’d been doing and the leadership I’d shown in the office, he was confident I could be an EV1.

When I walked out of Rommel’s office, I was in shock. To be a lead spacewalker, and possibly going back to Hubble, was at that point beyond my wildest dreams. It felt more incredible than my becoming an astronaut in the first place. Whenever I’d faced obstacles before—when I’d failed my qualifying exam at MIT or been medically disqualified by the astronaut selection board—there had always been at least a crack in the door for me to fight my way back in. But after 109 and Columbia, the idea of going back to Hubble…I felt like that door had been closed, nailed shut, and painted over. I was told I wasn’t good enough. I was told I wasn’t going back to Hubble, that I wasn’t qualified to be an EV1. Then Columbia happened and I hit rock bottom. But I’d worked hard. My friends, Grunsfeld, and the older Hubble guys had helped me out and kept me going. And now my hopes and dreams had been rekindled. I’d risen from the ashes, and so had NASA.

I couldn’t say I was definitely going to have a spot on the Hubble flight, but I got the sense that it was mine to lose. When Rommel put me in charge of the development runs he said, “Assume you’re on the flight. Who would you want with you?” I got to pick my dream team, more or less. I brought in several veteran Hubble guys, like Joe Tanner and Rick Linnehan. I also picked a bunch of rookies who hadn’t flown but who I liked for the job. Drew Feustel was one of them. Michael Good, whom we called “Bueno,” was another. Bueno was an Air Force navigator, a real no-nonsense, by-the-book military type. Feustel was loose and laid-back. Bueno was solid as a rock. They were a good balance.

To fly us on the robot arm in these runs, I brought in Megan McArthur, whom I got to know when I trained her to be a CAPCOM. Most astronauts apply to NASA three or four times and don’t get in until their mid- to late thirties. Megan got in on her first try. She was twenty-eight and hadn’t even completed her PhD yet. NASA wanted her that badly, and when I met her I understood why. She’s one of the smartest, most capable people you’ll ever come across, and a terrific person to work with. Any minute with Megan is a fun minute. She became the younger sister I never had.

With those selections, we had one slot left to fill. I wanted Grunsfeld, but Rommel was giving me pushback. Grunsfeld had already flown several times, and Rommel was being pressured to spread things around. He had three other candidates in mind. They were all good astronauts, but they didn’t know Hubble. Rommel made his case for assigning them and then asked me what I thought. I said, “If you want to go for a beer, pick one of those guys. If you want to fix that telescope, pick John Grunsfeld.” We picked Grunsfeld. John had stuck up for me on 109, and now it was my turn to do the same thing for him. It was the right thing to do and, loyalty aside, he was the right guy for the job.

We did one set of development runs in February 2006 and another in April. In July, STS-121 flew, and it was a great success. The insulation problems with the external tank had been fixed, the inspection protocols worked smoothly, and the crew made it home safe. In September, STS-115 flew, and that flight went perfectly, too. Four years after Columbia, the shuttle program was back. The station assembly flights were cleared to resume. Momentum was building. Now we were only waiting for word on when we were going back to Hubble.

In September, Steve Lindsey, who served as commander of STS-121, took over for Rommel as head of the astronaut office. He asked for a meeting with me and Grunsfeld to get an update on the servicing mission. We went into the meeting a bit anxious. At that point, as confident as we felt, we still didn’t know if the mission would happen. Spaceflight assignments are always tentative. Things can change, especially when a new chief of the Astronaut Office comes in. Maybe the old boss had a plan, but the new boss wants to throw it out and start over. Even after a flight is announced, you can still be taken off it for various reasons. Nothing is for certain until the rockets light up. That’s when you know you’re going somewhere.

We told Lindsey about what resources we felt we needed and how we were addressing the risks and gave him the whole rundown. He started talking about the publicity that was going to be involved because of the danger. “There’s going to be a big announcement when this comes out,” he said. “This is going to be the most dangerous mission in the history of the shuttle program, and the press is going to pick up on that and make a big deal out of it.” He said he was telling us so we could prepare our families to start hearing that from the media.

Prepare our families? Grunsfeld and I must have looked a bit confused. At a certain point Lindsey stopped and looked at us and said, “You guys do know you’re on it, right?”

After the meeting, Grunsfeld came by my office with this big smile on his face and said, “Do you realize what just happened? He just assigned us to Hubble.” For over a year we’d been working on a flight that didn’t officially exist. Now we’d been assigned to a flight that hadn’t been officially announced. For something like that to happen was completely outside the normal channels, but then there was nothing normal about the way this mission was coming together.

Once full flight operations resumed, things moved fast. Typically the way NASA works is that any major decision takes a couple of months. Hubble came together in a matter of days. On October 26, Chuck Shaw went up to Washington to present his panel’s findings to Mike Griffin, outlining the rescue plan and the survival strategy. Grunsfeld was in the meeting. He told me Griffin barely asked any questions at all. He’d already made up his mind and was only waiting for Shaw to confirm what he’d already decided. That was on a Thursday. On Friday an internal announcement was made that Hubble was back on the books. Over the weekend, calls went out to the crew.

Grunsfeld and I didn’t get calls. We already knew we were assigned. Bueno and Feustel were assigned to fill out the rest of the EVA team. Scooter was named our commander, which made me feel even better about the mission; I knew Megan McArthur was assigned to be our robot-arm operator, and our pilot was Greg Johnson, call sign “Ray J.” Megan called him our “Ray J of Sunshine.” He was always happy. Ray J is one of those Navy guys who loves to fly. For years he worked as an instructor out at Ellington, flying T-38s, where he got to love working with astronauts so much he decided to become one. It was a fantastic crew: Every single person was a person I would have picked for the job.

On Tuesday morning, October 31, Halloween, Mike Griffin held a press conference at NASA headquarters to announce the flight: STS-125 would be launching in October 2008 aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. The seven of us gathered in Scooter’s office on the fifth floor to watch the announcement. Senator Mikulski was there with Griffin. It was a big deal. We were told to be ready for a second press conference that afternoon in Houston. We called down to public affairs to try to dig up some matching NASA polo shirts. Then we went out for Chinese food and tried to process what was going on. We were in a bit of shock.

Normally, to announce a flight, NASA would just send out a press release. Then, once the crew was assigned, another press release would go out a few months later. We typically didn’t talk to the media until L-30, thirty days out from launch, and even then the coverage was mostly perfunctory. This was unprecedented. I don’t recall any other occasion when the flight and the crew were announced simultaneously with so much fanfare or so much attention given to the crew. Shuttle crews are usually nameless: a team, a unit. But at our press conference that afternoon, all seven of us did a Q&A from the front of the room, and then they broke us out for one-on-one interviews. NASA was really putting us out there. We sat with reporters so long we missed trick-or-treating that night.

The way the media was covering the flight, you’d have thought STS-125 was the last flight of the shuttle era, the grand finale. At that point there were still eighteen station assembly and supply flights left, nine of which would fly after we did, but we probably got more attention than all the others combined. After STS-121 flew in July, Aviation Week put the shuttle on its cover. But the headline under the photo wasn’t RETURN TO SPACEFLIGHT. It was CLEARING THE PATH TO HUBBLE.

Hubble captured people’s imaginations. This flight was important and different, and everyone knew it. We knew the shuttle was going away and this was our last shot at saving the telescope. We were putting our lives on the line to unlock the secrets of the universe. If you’re an astronaut, a flight like that is the reason you dreamed of doing the job in the first place. I remember being in the gym and running into Brent Jett, who commanded STS-115 that September. We got to talking about the telescope. “The thing about that Hubble flight,” he said, “is that you don’t even have to ask yourself whether or not it’s worth the risk.”

Exactly.