When most astronomers want to fix their telescopes, they tinker with parts, run tests, readjust, go home, and try again the next day. When John Grunsfeld ‘80 had to fix his, he suited up and rocketed into space.
The final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission in May 2009 was “a special mission in lots of ways,” says Grunsfeld, a five-time spaceflight veteran. It was the last time humans would visit the telescope, and the first time its components would be repaired on the spot instead of simply being replaced.
The mission was special for another reason, too: it almost didn’t happen. Originally scheduled for 2004, the flight was scrubbed after the space shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas in 2003. In the aftermath, NASA officials decided that all future shuttle missions should be capable of scurrying to the International Space Station in case of emergency–an impossible task from Hubble’s higher and less steeply inclined orbit. So a Hubble mission was deemed “too risky,” says Grunsfeld, who was then in Washington, DC, as NASA’s chief scientist. “There’s no place to hide out if something goes wrong.”
Having visited Hubble twice before, Grunsfeld says he felt like he’d been hit with a two-by-four when he heard the announcement in a meeting. Without a mission to replace its batteries and limping gyroscopes, the telescope would have just two to four years left. And as chief scientist, he would have to explain the decision to the public. “People love Hubble,” he says. “A lot of people think it’s the one thing [from the space program] giving value.”
So Grunsfeld set about trying to save the telescope, first thinking to service it by other means. He came up with plans for a robotic mission and even designed T-shirts and stickers with a “Robots to the Rescue” logo. (Another senior leader decided that this “cheapened the mission,” though, so you can’t find the shirts in your local spaceflight apparel store–and the robotic mission never flew.) He and others also challenged Goddard Spaceflight Center and the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operate the telescope, to extend Hubble’s battery life and run fewer gyros at a time until a mission could be scheduled to upgrade the systems.
By October 2006, once shuttles had started flying again after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, a visit to Hubble was back on the roster. Grunsfeld himself was tapped to lead the spacewalking service team. “John was instrumental in bringing back the mission,” former astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman, a professor of the practice of aeronautics, told MIT students when Grunsfeld returned to his alma mater last November. “So it’s just that he got a starring role in it.”
A crew of seven trained for two years in NASA’s simulators and in telescope mock-ups underwater. Still, the real Hubble wasn’t ready for them: on the eve of the scheduled shuttle launch in October 2008, a computer failure on the telescope meant another repair had to be planned and trained for, scrapping the mission again until February 2009. Further delays pushed it to May. But the day the space shuttle Atlantis finally went up, with Grunsfeld strapped into seat 5, it went right on time.