Astronaut Scholarship Foundation commemorates Hubble’s first 25 years
COCOA BEACH, Fla. — On Friday, Nov. 6, the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF) invited guests to experience a night at Eastern Florida State College with astronauts and other personnel who have released, repaired, and benefitted from the Hubble Space Telescope over the past 25 years.
Hubble was launched on April 24, 1990, on board Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-31. The crew, including panel member astronaut Steven Hawley, was woken up on the morning of Hubble’s release by the song “Space is Our World”, performed by Private Numbers. Band member Bruce Moody was in attendance as his song was played to the evening’s attendees.
Hawley spoke about the challenges the crew faced in releasing Hubble. The telescope had to be sent on its way at a much higher altitude than the shuttle had ever flown in order to avoid a rapid orbital decay, which would have required frequent repair missions.
In order to release Hubble at the appropriate altitude, the crew would need to achieve an orbit more than two times higher than any previous shuttle mission.
Astronauts Kathy Thornton, Tom Akers, and Jeff Hoffman, members of the crew of STS-61 (the first Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission) were also in attendance. STS-61 had five spacewalks scheduled for Hubble repairs, an unprecedented number of extra-vehicular activities at that time.
Hoffman reflected on the first spacewalk of the mission with crewmate astronaut Story Musgrave. Despite 400 hours of test runs on the ground, when it came time to perform the repair, Hoffman struggled to close a latch on the telescope. “If you can’t get the doors closed, you’ve lost the telescope,” Hoffman said. Eventually, they were able to work out a method of ratcheting the door closed, saving the telescope.
Akers and Thornton also recalled issues encountered on a later spacewalk during the same mission where a problem with a foot restraint platform led to Akers relying on Thornton to act as his foot restraint while he completed repairs otherwise unrestrained.
“I don’t think Ground Control even knew there was a problem, except that they hadn’t heard from us in 10 or 15 minutes, and it was a three-minute job,” Akers said. “If you have other people there and you’re used to working together, you can usually find a way to get things done.”
Reflecting upon lessons learned from Hubble, Hoffman said, “[Y]ou can do precision work in a pressure suit. People said NASA had bitten off too much, but Hubble proved what space-suited astronauts can do.” In agreement, Thornton said the Hubble repairs “[…] would have been way harder to do without pressure suits!”
Akers, speaking on the legacy of Hubble, said he believed one of its most important contributions was that it was built for repair on orbit. What was learned building and servicing Hubble was applied to future servicing missions as well as to the construction of the International Space Station.
Former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, also a member of the panel, commented on Hubble’s discoveries pertaining to dark matter. “Before we launched Hubble, 96 percent of the universe we live in we didn’t even know existed.”
Hawley went on to agree that the discovery of dark matter and dark energy would likely be the most important part of Hubble’s legacy while also giving credit to its spectacular images. “Think how many classrooms have pictures from Hubble!” he said.
Astronaut Scholar Larry Bradley took time to recount his work on the ground with the data and pictures received from Hubble, including the discovery of what was, at the time, the most distant galaxy ever observed. “The Hubble Space Telescope has transformed the universe. That’s not dramatic – it’s what happened,” said Bradley.
It was agreed upon throughout the panel that one of the most important things Hubble has done for humanity as a whole, however, was to generate extended interest in space exploration efforts. According to members of the panel, for more than two decades, Hubble has been the one thing that NASA has done that people are still interested in.
Griffin weighed in on this, firmly saying that the American people maintain fervent support of space exploration. “The problem is not with Americans, it’s with the current leadership,” Griffin asserted to applause.
Looking toward the future, questions were asked about the James Webb telescope, which is scheduled to launch on the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 rocket in October 2018. Bradley chimed in again, saying “like Hubble transformed our view of the universe, James Webb is going to do that again.”
“We’d really like to see the first generation of stars,” added Hoffman. “Hopefully, James Webb can do that for us.”
The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation hosted its Space Rendezvous 2015 from Nov. 5–7. Events that took place over the three days included a review of progress on NASA’s Orion and SLS Programs, the 25th Anniversary of Hubble event, Apollo-Soyuz to Today: 40 Years of International Collaboration, the Astronaut Autograph and Memorabilia Show, as well as a number of breakout sessions with astronauts, scholars, and space personalities.
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