“Everyone said [repairs] wouldn’t work,” Grunsfeld says. The naysayers pointed out that it would be nearly impossible to keep track of lots of tiny screws in zero gravity (and any that got loose could damage Hubble’s sensitive instruments), and that astronauts would have to reach into parts of the telescope that were never meant for humans to access in space. But after hundreds of practice go-rounds on Earth and multiple hours of space walks, he and his team proved them wrong. Using special tools designed to remove the screws and trap them inside a clear casing during repair, the astronauts brought both instruments back online.
After his tense space walk with astronaut Andrew Feustel to finish fixing the survey camera, Grunsfeld was elated–and exhausted. “I slept sounder than ever in my life,” he recalls. “I slept through the wake-up call and the wake-up music [the next morning].” He was so sound asleep, in fact, that crew member K. Megan McArthur asked, “Is John dead?”
Explorer sans Frontiers
Space isn’t the only backdrop for Grunsfeld’s adventures. He also climbs mountains, flies planes, cycles, and sails. “I thrive with high-performance challenges in front of me,” he says. An avid mountaineer, he was anxious to return to technical climbing after his mission. But a bum shoulder from a preflight training injury kept him in rehab for months, and he had to put his plans on hold.
Undaunted, the explorer still hopes to pay a few visits to the mountains, including Mt. Lucania, a 5,226-meter peak along the Alaska-Canada border: you can “count on one or two hands” the number of people who’ve scaled it. The late Bradford Washburn–a friend and fellow mountaineer who founded the Boston Museum of Science–was the first to do so, in 1937. To honor that climb and his friend’s exploring spirit, Grunsfeld took Washburn’s expedition camera, a 1929 Zeiss Maximar B, for a ride in space. He used it to take pictures of Hubble and of Earth’s mountains.
Grunsfeld dreams of using the camera one more time: to take pictures at Mt. Lucania of the same spots Washburn photographed, which could reveal how the area has been affected by climate change. There’s a “reasonable possibility that you’d see significant changes,” he says.
Like mountain climbing, spaceflight is sometimes pure fun for him. On the final Hubble repair mission, Grunsfeld got to kick back during the last two days, when bad weather over Florida, the primary shuttle landing site, temporarily stranded the crew in space. He took the opportunity to do “all the stupid astronaut tricks” he’d never gotten to do on past missions, he says. He and Feustel particularly enjoyed “fluid-physics experiments” (playing with water and juice balls in zero gravity), and he and fellow MIT graduate Mike Massimino, SM ‘88, MEng ‘90, PhD ‘92, had fun studying the “stability of rotating systems and conservation of angular momentum” (doing somersaults). They joked about sending their videos back to MIT to be used in basic mechanics courses.