Q: Of all the careers in all the world that a person could aspire to, you ended up a professional space traveler. What was it that motivated you, or inspired you, to become an astronaut?
Preflight Interview: Mike Massimino, Mission Specialist
A: I think the astronaut job is the best job in the world. I realized when I was older and started applying for it, that it’s a pretty cool job. But it first hit me when I was a little guy, when I was, 6 years old is when, people first walked on the moon, when Neil Armstrong took those first steps that everyone remembers, and who was alive at that time, remembers that day. I just thought it was really cool. I thought this was even bigger than baseball. In New York the Mets are winning the World Series in 1969; that was pretty big, but I would say the moon landing was right up there with the Mets in the World Series. So it made a, a big impression on me as a little kid. I started to look up to the astronauts as my heroes when I was that age and went to Hayden Planetarium in New York City with my folks whenever we could. I took out books about it, and I just remember really getting into it, dressed up as an astronaut for Halloween and the whole bit. So I was really, really into it at an early age. As I got older, I kind of forgot about it. As I was a high school student I just liked math and science and going to school and, and didn’t really think about what I was going to do. It really wasn’t until after I got out of, college and I thought about what I wanted to do with myself that I thought about working with the space program. I had always been interested in the space program and I didn’t know if I could be an astronaut like I’d dreamt about when I was a little kid -- to me it sounded kind of silly, someone grow up to be an astronaut -- but, when I was in my 20s I thought maybe I can get a job with NASA or a contractor, do something with the space program. I went to grad school, at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] -- undergrad I was at Columbia. I worked a couple years and then went to MIT and started pursuing a space-related career. I looked into applying and, started applying while I was in grad school. But it is the greatest job in the world, it’s just tough to get. I realize that, too, so I feel very lucky that I have it.
What were the other jobs that you had in the space business before you became an astronaut?
My odyssey to become an astronaut kind of started in grad school and I was working, up at MIT, in space robotics-related work; human and robot working together. It was a, was a hot topic and one that I was interested in. I worked in that, in that area and got some exposure to NASA at that time. I worked a couple summers for NASA. I worked at NASA Headquarters for a summer, at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center for a summer, and I worked in Germany with the German aerospace, program one summer, so I got a little bit of, of a taste of the professional work, while I was still in grad school. After graduating I came down to the Johnson Space Center and worked for McDonnell Douglas, as a support contractor for the Johnson Space Center and did some robotics, human/robotic-related, research, for a few years. Then I got offered a faculty job at, Georgia Tech and that was pretty cool. Being a faculty member was a fun job. Georgia Tech was a great school. I did that for a year and then NASA, said “yes,” while I was at Georgia Tech. We moved back to Houston and I’ve been with NASA since that time.
That’s a lot of moving around from New York.
Tell me about your hometown; tell me about where you grew up out in Queens.
Not out in Queens -- I grew up in Franklin Square, Long Island, which is just, it’s very close to the Queens border, so it was a suburb of New York City is where I grew up. But it was a nice place to grow up. Long Island was kind of a suburban setting, a lot of good friends. I still see a lot of these folks every once in a while. My wife is from the same area so we go back and, and visit quite often. It was a really good place to grow up. I had a lot of family around me, too. You know, most Italian families don’t move very far, so I had my aunts and uncles across the street and around the corner. I used to see them a lot and they were like second mothers and fathers to me, and my cousins were like extra brothers and sisters. So it was a really fun childhood. I have a lot of good memories from my parents and my extended family and my friends and all the action that was going on in, in the New York area, going to a lot of baseball games and enjoying the city every once in a while. It was a nice childhood, I would say. I can hardly blame my parents for anything.
So you kind of have a sense that that place and those people had a lot to do with making you the person that you are?
If you knew these people you wouldn’t say that, but I don't know if I can, professionally. My family was a bunch of characters, really, my uncles, especially. My uncles were hysterical, and there’s stuff I learned from them I really can’t repeat here. But it was really a lot of fun. It was just nonstop action. People would pop in all the time. Whoever was in, whoever was taking a walk, would come in the front door and we’d do the same to them. It was fun. I kind of miss that. As we moved around the country, you move away from family, usually, and you don’t have that. Your neighbors somewhat replace that but it’s not the same. That’s kind of one regret I have, that my kids don’t have a bunch of uncles to drive them nuts, around, around the corner like I did growing up.
We know that flying in space can be a dangerous thing to do. Mike, what is it you think that we get as result of flying people in space that makes that risk one you’re willing to take?
I think as humans we’re curious about what things are like and what’s out there, and what people experience. We want to know what it’s like to, to be a professional athlete so we have, we ask people what it’s like, or we like to read books about other people’s experiences or look in magazines. I think in general we like to experience things firsthand if we can. People like to go on vacation., We like to see things, but, in general, it’s very difficult to get to space; it’s not something we can spend, send everybody to. So I think as astronauts we are the lucky folks who are kind of like the representatives for everybody else, that get a chance to go and get to experience that and hopefully tell people what it’s like. People can, if they’re interested, tune in and see what we’re up to. I think it enables us as humans to experience what’s really out there. And the Hubble can give us a view of what we can’t get to yet, kind of whet our appetite. But I don’t think we’re truly satisfied unless we experience it firsthand. So I think that’s part of it, and that’s why I think we do it. I think there’s the other part of it is that it’s sometimes useful to have people in space, that we’re able to react to things and fix things and keep things like the Hubble Space Telescope going, and keep up the research that we’re doing in the space station. Humans are able to effectively operate there and be able to keep that all going. Without people you wouldn’t be able to build the space station, so we do have usefulness as well. But I think it’s also the experience of going is what we’re able to, to do. We’re able to go there and see what it’s like. What is it, what does it look like, smell like, what does it feel like, what is the view of the Earth like, what do the stars look like firsthand? It’s an extraordinary experience. I couldn’t imagine not having people partake in it.
When was the first time you ever heard of the Hubble Space Telescope?
The first time I heard of the Hubble Space Telescope was probably when I was in grad school in the mid-’80s, there was a bunch of scientists up at MIT interested in what was going to happen with it. And then we knew it was delayed because of the Challenger accident and these guys were kind of waiting. I guess I had heard about it on the news before then but that’s when I first started, hearing more about people that were involved with it and what the science might do. Then when it first was launched and then didn’t see straight, I remember a lot of people being upset about that and hoping that they would fix it, and so I guess when I was in grad school and, and there were people around me that were actively interested and, and doing their research on the astronomy that would come out of it that I first started really hearing about it.
In the years then since Hubble has been working, what do you think what it’s accomplished has meant to the science of astronomy?
I have an interest in astronomy but I’m not one of these high-powered astronomy dudes. But they’re really excited about what it’s coming up with. I think, in the terms that I can understand, that most people understand, that’s pretty cool; it’s stuff like, how big is the universe? And Hubble’s figuring that out. And how old is the universe, and where did we all come from, and are there, how many planets are there out there that might be able to support life, what are black holes like? These things that we’ve kind of heard about for years -- even I heard about when, growing up in New York, when I was in school -- and now Hubble’s able to give them answers, and changing what they thought the answers would be. An example is the amount of energy we have in the universe. The measurements that Hubble’s able to provide these smart astronomy guys with has shown that there’s a lot of energy that we can’t really recognize. We know it’s there because they can measure the gravitational effect, but they don’t know what this stuff is or where it’s coming from. That’s pretty cool because we think we know so much and as we learn more we find out we really don’t know that much. So we’re answering some questions, but it’s also opening up a lot of questions that we don’t know the answers to yet, so it’s, it’s a pretty cool machine.
What has the Hubble Space Telescope meant to a different field, to space exploration?
From the astronaut perspective? I think it’s shown us, what Hubble has done for the, for astronauts working in space, it’s shown that we’re able to do some pretty intricate tasks, that we might not have thought we could do when we first heard about them, and, Hubble seems to redefine what we’re able to do during our spacewalks each time we, we go back. On STS-109 we changed out this power control unit that had all these connectors on it. It had like 36 connectors and we didn’t know if any of them would come off and would you be able to put them back on. We had to design a special tool and a special board to stow these things on. It was this big project and we were able to do it. And now with this mission we have some other stuff we’re doing. We’re not just taking big instruments out and putting a replacement in, but now we’re actually trying to go in and fix the inside of the instruments, which we never thought we would ever do. No one ever expected that to happen but these smart, engineers, at the Goddard Space Flight Center and here at Johnson Space Center and around the country have figured out ways that we can do that. I think it’s meant to me that there’s really nothing we can’t do if we put our minds to it. This is just one example of that. We see that in many fields but in our field of spacewalking, I think it’s shown that, with the right tools and training, you can do almost anything.
You bring up a, a good point ’cause there are a lot of people involved in getting you guys ready to fly, and not just here in Houston, like for most shuttle missions. Talk about the, the training and the support that you’ve received from the people behind Hubble at the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Space Telescope Science Institute.
One of the cool things about being assigned to a Hubble flight is that you don’t only get the chance to work with the folks at the Johnson Space Center, but you get to work with these people from around the country that have worked on the instruments and particularly a lot of the folks come from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. They’re a wonderful group of people to work with, very dedicated. If I was that dedicated I don’t know what I could accomplish -- probably a lot more than I have. They’re really, really into what they’re doing, very excited about their work, and really smart, clever people. What they do is pretty much work around the clock, figuring out how they can make the telescope better, what they can change out, how they can make the procedures better or tools better. They work with our team at the Johnson Space Center to make all that, that happen. It’s just a wonderful group of people to work with.
It’s not a surprise that the people who work on the Hubble mission love the Hubble Space Telescope, but the telescope has become kind of an icon to people outside of the scientific community. Why do you think it seems to have touched so many people?
It touched me before I was assigned to the flight, just by the beauty of what is out there in our universe. It allows us to go some place that we can’t yet. You know, we’re only, we’ve been to the moon many years ago when I was a kid and we go to low Earth orbit now, but we hope to go beyond that, hopefully in the next few years, and in our lifetime we’ll see us go a little bit further in the solar system. But Hubble’s seeing a heck of a lot further than that, so it kind of takes us out there and shows us what’s out there. We really didn’t know what it would look like, and it allows us to see the beauty of what’s out there and the immense, the immensity of it, of how big things are, and how many stars and galaxies and other planets that are out there. It’s just mind boggling, the stuff that this thing can see. And we can never get anywhere near that type of imagery by what we have on the ground. So it’s taken us, I think it’s taken us further out there than we could ever even imagine and shown us stuff that we, in our wildest imaginations we couldn’t have imagined it was there. And that’s what Hubble shows us, and that’s what I think is cool about it. That’s what everybody can relate to, everyone likes about it, I think.
What’s your favorite Hubble telescope image?
Hubble has a lot of cool images, but my favorite one is the Cone Nebula. It’s a very cool scientific picture, it’s, it’s this big giant red cone and it’s got these stars kind of popping out of the top; it’s this nursery for stars. All these stars like our sun are being popped out of the top of this thing. It looks like a star birthplace, so that’s pretty cool. I like it for that, but I also like it because it was taken with a camera that we installed on [STS-]109. We had trained to put this Advanced Camera for Surveys in, this, a big instrument about the size of a, of a refrigerator. My job was to hook it all up. I had to work the connectors and all that stuff and Jim Newman and I put the camera in along with our crew working inside. So we had a little bit of an interest and affection for this thing and were hoping that it would work right. When you close the thing up and you leave the telescope they do an aliveness test, to make sure that the electricity or whatever is running through the thing and it’s working, OK, it’s getting power and they think they can get data from it and so on. But you never really know if it’s working until you see the pictures. One of the first images we saw from the Advanced Camera for Survey[s] was the Cone Nebula and so that’s why I liked it -- because I could breathe a sigh of relief that the thing actually worked. So that’s why it’s one of my favorites.
You’re mission specialist on the Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. Mike, summarize the goals of the mission and what your main responsibilities are.
For STS-125, our mission, we’re going up to Hubble. We’re going to be replacing a bunch of stuff. Some of the stuff is for life extension, to keep the Hubble healthy and working for years to come. We’re going to be changing out batteries, we’re going to be changing out these gyros which help, help point it, we’re going to be changing out a Fine Guidance Sensor which also helps with its pointing -- stuff that kind of makes the telescope work, like the electricity and the water and plumbing in your house, keep it going for a little bit longer. And then we’re going to do some things to upgrade the telescope. We’re going to put in a new Wide Field Camera, which is going to increase, the telescope’s ability to see into the universe by a factor of 10, and all these cool pictures that we see should get even better because this camera works in the visible light spectrum so we can see a lot of cool stuff if we do our job right and this thing works. We’re excited about the Wide Field Camera, and also the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph which is another big scientific instrument we’re putting in. So those things are going to increase the science capability of the telescope. And then we have a couple science instruments that have worked very well in the past that are not working any longer because they’ve had a, a voltage supply fail on them, about the size, like, kind of, the size of a computer board that you might have in your computer. Those things have failed inside these big fancy multi-million dollar instruments. They don’t work because of this any longer, so we’re going to try to go inside of these instruments and remove and change out those computer boards, a pretty complicated task. The thing’s not working now so hopefully we don’t do any harm, we can’t make it any worse, hopefully, but hopefully we’re going to be able to fix those instruments and bring them back on line. So, in a nutshell, that’s what we’re doing during our spacewalks, and in order to do that we have to launch successfully, get to the telescope, rendezvous with it, grab it, put it in the payload bay, make sure everything’s working good, and then after we do our spacewalks, undock it from the shuttle, and send it on its way. And then we come home.
After the loss of Columbia, this final Hubble servicing mission was cancelled; it was decided that it was going to be too risky. But that decision was reversed almost two years ago, and here you are. What was your feeling about the decision not to fly the Hubble again, and then about the choice to go ahead and make the trip after all?
I was disappointed that they decided to, to cancel the Hubble flights. It was unfortunate but at the time it seemed like it was the right thing to do, maybe, considering that what, what the agency was looking at with the future of the shuttle. But, at the same time I was hopeful that something would happen. Almost immediately they looked at a, a way to save the telescope without the shuttle by doing a robotic mission. I had an opportunity to work on that a little bit which was pretty fun. It was probably something we might have been able to do but it just was going to be a little bit too costly. And then we had more confidence in what the shuttle was doing with our inspection and repair techniques, and we got back to flying the shuttle again. It seemed like, well, maybe we can revisit this, that we can go back with, with the shuttle and some astronauts and fix it. That seemed to gain some momentum and then all of a sudden it seemed like that was the right decision, and luckily our leaders of our space program and of our government decided, yeah, let’s go back and send a shuttle, we can do that, and they turned it back on. So I was pretty happy. I was really happy when they turned it back on and I got assigned to it because I knew I was going to have a job for at least a couple more years, so, so it worked out OK.
Well, your flight, like all the shuttle flights now, will include a, an inspection of the vehicle using [the] Orbiter Boom Sensor System. Tell me about how that’s accomplished and what you’re looking for when you do that survey.
Well, to inspect the vehicle to make sure it’s OK, that we haven’t got any, damage, from any debris during launch or while we’re up in orbit, hitting something that hurts your thermal protection system that protects you as you come home and heat up going through the atmosphere. We pick up the boom, this big giant boom, like a telephone pole that’s got these fancy cameras and sensors on it, with the robot arm so it can go a pretty long way and get in just about all the areas of the shuttle to inspect it. We’re looking for anything that looks like damage in a critical area, any tile that might have taken a big, hit where it’s missing a big chunk, or a big hole, or also in these areas that are not made up of tile necessarily, but on the, the leading edge of the wing, for example, that has to take a lot of heat when we come in and, and, needs to be in good shape in order for us to survive the entry. We’re going to do the inspection of those areas as well. We’re going to look at the whole orbiter, and anything that looks out of the ordinary, something that might have puffed up or gotten a hit and broken or something that’s missing or whatever, we’re going to take a real good look at it and be able to send those images down to the ground and the data down to the ground and have the smart guys on, and gals on the ground look at it. Then if we need to repair it we’ll go outside and, and try to fix it. So, that’s what we’ll be doing.
We’ve tested out some ways to make repairs to the shuttle since the Return to Flight. What could you do to fix damage so that Atlantis could come home?
Well, if you have, if you have a hole in a, in a, in a tile, in an area that you don’t like, in other words if it’s an area where that, you know, it’s a, it’s a section of the space shuttle that, with that type of damage we say, you know, the experts figure out that, you know, this isn’t a good thing, we don’t, we don’t want to take that chance, then there’s things we can do. We can put, there’s some material that during a spacewalk, we can put into that hole, kind of like when you’re spackling a hole, filling in a hole in a wall for whatever reason, which is not necessarily an easy thing. In space it’s probably going to be at least as difficult … messing around with that kind of gooey stuff. That’s one method we can do. Depending on the type of damage, the size and where it is, we can also put, kind of a cover over it, an overlay is what they call it. It's like, in addition to patching the wall you kind of put a, a new piece of sheetrock over it. So, we can do those things. In our case it’s a little bit different because we don’t have the safe haven of the space station. All the other shuttle flights go up to the space station and you have the opportunity to hang out there for a while until you figure out what’s going on and how to get everybody back home safely. We don’t have the space station so [if there's] damage we can’t repair, another vehicle will come up and get us. So, it’s a little bit different than, than most shuttle flights, in our case.
Not to dwell on it but, as you say, if you couldn’t make a repair and another shuttle had to come rescue you, what’s the option? How does that work?
We’re going to have a crew standing by. This is part of the deal when they turned Hubble back on, was that, they -- “they” being the folks who run our space program, Mike Griffin and his team -- looked at the different options and in order to feel comfortable about sending us to Hubble, they wanted to have another space shuttle ready to go on the launch pad with some friends of ours who say they’ll come get us -- you want to make sure you get the right guys and gals to come get you -- they promise they’ll come get us if we have trouble. If we have a damaged space shuttle that we can’t return with and we can’t fix, then we’ll have a rescue crew come and get us. They’ll have their shuttle out on the launch pad. I don’t know if they’re going to go into quarantine. They should get their own [mission] patch, I think, like the St. Bernard that comes and rescues people with that little barrel he’s got. But they would come and, shoot up to our orbit and rendezvous with us. They’re still working out the details of how we would attach, craft to craft, probably with the robot arm attaching to a grapple fixture from one shuttle to the other and do a transfer. You’d have to go EVA and transfer along the arm and get to the new spaceship and then come home with the new guys and leave the old one behind.
All the work to get Hubble running at full steam is going to be contingent, as you say, on the successful launch, rendezvous, grappling, berthing the telescope. Tell me the part that you’re going to play in those operations, and how you guys go about getting the telescope onto the work platform in the payload bay.
I’ll be working with, Megan McArthur, who’s our prime, robot arm operator. I’m her assistant, more or less, with the grapple of the telescope and putting it into the payload bay, so we can work on it. So our commander, Scott Altman, will be flying us close to the telescope. We have a grapple fixture, a target that we’ll be looking for on the telescope, and we’ll line the robot arm up with it and then Megan will go in and get it and I’ll help her any way I can, mainly just kind of being a lookout, looking at the views around her, making sure the arm’s in good shape, that she has the right rate coming in and everything looks good, just kind of making sure that everything’s OK, nothing unexpected’s happening. Megan will grab the telescope with the arm, and then once we have it everyone breathes a sigh of relief, and then we move the arm with the telescope attached to it down into a servicing structure like a big turntable. The telescope’s got these little bars on the bottom of it, we’ve got these latches on this turntable out in the payload bay. They grab onto it and then the arm can release it and then this thing can move around and turn. It’s like a big lazy Susan -- you want to get the ketchup over to you, it’s on the other side, you just spin it and get to the ketchup; that’s what we’ll be doing. We’ll spin it and get to the Wide Field Camera or whatever instrument we need to get to, so for the spacewalks, the telescope will be in the right position.
Right after the berthing, there’s, there’s a couple of hours set aside for a survey of the telescope. What’s that task? What are you guys looking for then?
It’s just a way to document what the telescope looks like. This thing’s been in space and no one’s looked at it since STS-109, which was six years ago. We'll see what, what, what kind of shape it’s in and get photo documentation of what the thing looks like. I like it because it gives us a chance to really look at this thing, and see where we’re going to be working on it and what the doors look like -- it’s all shiny, you know. It’s one thing I noticed on the last flight -- it was shiny; in the pool it’s painted and everything but it doesn’t have this shiny tape on it, where the telescope looks like kind of a mirror on the outside. It’s really, really nice and shiny and cool looking and it’s nice to get a chance to see it. The survey gives you a chance to take some close-up images of it. All those images get sent to the ground and people will look at them for anything out of the ordinary, maybe some damage it might have taken or if anything looks particularly worn or out of the ordinary or, just gives us a chance, if any of the thermal blankets around it or, any, of the, the MLI [multilayer insulation], damaged or ripped or torn. If anything’s out of place, we’ll be able to see it. So we’re just making sure that the telescope’s in good condition and if it’s not, seeing what we might be able to do to help it out.
In the broad strokes, you’ve been preparing for spacewalks on this telescope quite similar to the job that you had on your last shuttle mission on this same telescope. How has the experience for you of having done this before helped you and your team get ready for this mission?
I think having a chance to fly to Hubble before was a, was a great experience, and for me, personally, when it was … it’s kind of sad when the big party’s over, so I was pretty sad about it and I was sad, in some ways, because I wasn’t going to be seeing all my friends from Goddard all the time. You get pretty close with them. So it’s kind of fun getting a chance to go back and work with them again. As far as the experience of working on the telescope, Hubble’s a little bit different. Space station kind of dominates our training and everything we do, when we’re in the pool working, training spacewalks. Normally we’re training for, for space station spacewalks and most of our support and our conversations and our meetings and our tools and everything else deals with space station. So Hubble’s a little bit different, than doing station. It’s a different spaceship. Your technique’s a little bit different. You only have one shot at it. There’s no crew that’s going to be hanging around to do things, later on if something breaks. You spend a lot of time on any spacewalk choreography but, you know, we have in mind that this might be the last time anyone goes there, and the last planned time that anyone will be up there so, having the experience of knowing what the tools are like and working with the team before and what the telescope looks like and how you work with it, I think, has been very useful in helping us prepare for this next one. At least that was the idea. So I hope it has been and I think it has for me. For me, personally, going the first time was really cool and I think I’m actually more excited this time because I know what it’s like. When it’s just in your imagination and you think about what spaceflight might be, you know, you might think about it or dream about it and know you want to go and all that, but once you’ve seen it and you’ve gotten a chance to view the Earth while working on the telescope, viewing the Earth from inside the cabin and, being out there on a spacewalk and looking around and, and being a part of a team, of a crew, that’s pretty cool stuff. I feel very fortunate to get a chance to do that a second time.
The Timeline for this mission calls for five spacewalks over five consecutive days. Now how do you guys divide up the responsibilities, from helping spacewalkers getting ready to go outside, to robotics operations, to coordinating with mission control, keeping things running smoothly on board …
For five days in a row, is that what you’re saying?
We try to practice as much as we can that, that scenario, on the ground. When we do our training in the pool we generally do it, since we have five spacewalks, [on consecutive] days of the week. Somehow that worked out pretty good. We try to start on Monday and go through Friday when we do it in the pool, as much as we can, as scheduling allows. That kind of gets us into that rhythm of waking up, getting ready to do a spacewalk, doing the spacewalk, and then coming back inside. We go home and sleep and then wake up and do it the next morning. On the shuttle we’ll be doing stuff to prepare the suits and so on for the next day and then getting ready. It’s a pretty intense pace, though, and there’s always something to do. Everyone’s busy. Folks on the ground are busy, trying to figure out what’s going on and what we’re going to do next, and we’re doing the same in space. Everyone’s working to do whatever they can to, to make that run as smoothly as possible, but you’re pretty much moving all the time. You’re doing something all the time. As soon as you wake up it’s time to get the two spacewalkers ready to get out the door and it’s time for everyone else to get ready, for Megan to work the arm, for Scooter to be the commander and make sure everything’s going well and Greg Johnson helps us out with our EVAs and with our videotaping. The four spacewalkers are going to be getting each other ready and getting the tools set and getting the guys out the door and then working the choreography during the, the spacewalk.
That’s it -- even on the days that you don’t go outside, you’re still working?
You’re still working on the days you’re not outside. You can try to take naps but that’s kind of difficult because they still expect you to work. When you’re not outside spacewalking, the team that’s on the inside helps the team that’s on the outside by getting them ready to go out and then working the checklist. Spacewalking is an open book test. Not all tests in school are open book, but this is definitely an open book test, so if they have any questions we have to answer them. We have the answers for them. We have this big giant checklist and it has the order of what we’re supposed to do and little reminders of things that we think we might forget. It has all the info we need to run our spacewalks. So it’s the responsibility of the guys that are on the inside to use that information and convey that to the guys on the outside so that they can do their job. You have to try to stay ahead of them and, think about what they want to know. It’s kind of, almost, somewhat of an art. It takes a lot of practice. I think the best way to do the inside job is to think about what you would want to know if you were outside, not just read the list. My mom won’t get upset over this -- you know, even my mom can do that. She doesn’t have any space training but she can sit there and read the checklist. You want to do a little more than that. You want to say, all right, this is what he’s thinking about now, next he’s got this going on, he’s got this on him, and he’s, you know, he’s been outside for two hours so that means this or whatever, and, you know, you want to take a lot into consideration and try to feed them the information they need and make sure the job gets done and take good care of them because they’re going to, hopefully, do that for you the next day.
Well, I want to talk about the things that you’re going to be delivering and how they’re going to improve operations of the telescope. Top priority components are two Rate Sensor Units. What are they, what do they do?
The Rate Sensor Units, if you can take the first letter of each one of them, we call them RSUs, so that’s even more code work …
… more code work for you. But, those are the gyroscopes, things that spin and point the telescope very, very accurately. They actually don’t move the telescope but they can, they can sense any motion and they help point the telescope very accurately. These are pretty amazing devices. They can point the telescope so accurately, the analogy that we have on Earth to that is, if you could do it, is if you were on, say you and I were in, you were in Washington, D.C., and I’m in New York -- I’m from New York originally so that makes sense, right; you spend any time in Washington?
OK, so you’re in Washington, D.C., up there with the headquarters guys. I go to the Empire State Building, and you go to the Washington Monument. I’ve got a laser and you’ve got a dime, and I can shine my laser and hit your dime from the Empire State Building in New York to the dime on top of the Washington Monument -- that’s how accurately the telescope can point, and the biggest contributor to that pointing capability are these Rate Sensor Units. That’s what enables Hubble to do its great science, because it can point and hold its position on these far-off images, these things that are way out there in the universe. It can get these images because it can point very accurately, and it’s the Rate Sensor Units that do that. Unfortunately these things wear out -- they don’t last forever and we need to change them every few years. That’s why it’s the highest priority.
The next top priority is the Wide Field Camera 3. What does that do, and how is it an improvement over 2?
It has one more number to it, 2 to 3; we think it’s better. Wide Field Camera, has the ability to see in the visual light spectrum, which means that it can see stuff that’s out there that we can see with our eyes if we were able to, sort of, kind of. So it, it shows us the really cool images that we see. Most of those cool images come from the Wide Field Camera. In the past, before the Advanced Camera for Surveys was put in on the last servicing mission, prior to that it was Wide Field that provided all these cool images, and then Advanced Camera for Surveys contributed a lot of those. And now this Wide Field Camera 3 is going to be an improvement even on those instruments. It’s roughly, from what I can tell, the scientists are saying somewhat conservatively, about a factor of 10 improvement, which means it will see 10 times better. The increased science, discovery capability, of the telescope with this new camera will be increased by a factor of 10. So it’s a high priority because it’s going to return some really cool science. The Rate Sensor Units are going to keep the telescope pointed accurately for a longer time, the batteries will give it life, power, for many years, hopefully. But to increase the science capability and the images that everyone’s going to get excited about that makes those calendars that people like to have on their walls and the screen savers with the Hubble images, all that stuff, that’s important stuff and we think is going to be coming from the Wide Field Camera 3. That’s the plan.
You’re also installing a Cosmic Origins Spectrograph in a spot that’s now occupied by a component called COSTAR, the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement. This was the special piece of equipment that was installed in 1993 to fix Hubble’s vision, so why is it being retired?
COSTAR, as you said, is kind of like the eyeglasses for Hubble. When they launched Hubble wasn’t seeing so good and everyone was disappointed, and maybe some people were angry, or whatever was going on. The clever people in the Hubble Space Telescope Program, figured out, well, hey, light comes into the telescope and gets distributed around all these instruments, and it’s just coming in cockeyed because of there was a problem with the mirror. So just like our eyeballs as you get older, as I’m getting older, you don’t see as well as you used to. The light’s still coming in your eyes, it just doesn’t focus right. You put glasses on, you can see better. So they came up with the idea of putting glasses on Hubble, which is more or less what they did. COSTAR is a bunch of lenses that got deployed into the light stream, more or less, so that it corrected the aberration that was on the mirror, so that all light now would be seen clearly by all these instruments that needed to decipher what was out there in the universe. But what these smart guys also did is that since they knew what the problem was, what prescription that the telescope needed, when they put a new instrument in, like when they put Wide Field 2 in, they gave it its prescription already. So when they replaced Wide Field they put the prescription in; when they put Advanced Camera for Surveys and when they put NICMOS [Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer] and the STIS [Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph], these other acronyms for instruments that they have, they already had the correction in. It already had its glasses on, it didn’t need COSTAR. So now everything’s been replaced, they don’t need COSTAR any more because everyone’s already got the prescription. So we’re going to take COSTAR out and put this new scientific instrument in.
We’re bringing two replacement battery modules?
How big are these things? How long do they last in that environment?
They're pretty big batteries. They’re about the size of a large television set. They weigh a few hundred pounds, and they’re actually, as you said, battery modules. There’s three batteries within each one of these battery modules so there’s … six batteries that are going to get put in there. They hopefully will last for a long time. The ones that they have now were launched back in 1990 and they’re older than that, I mean, they were around a few years on the ground, so they’ve lasted 18 years, which is pretty good. There actually was a big concern about those batteries because they were worried about the decay in their performance. But the smart people up at the Space Telescope Operations Center figured out that they could turn some lights off, more or less, in the house, they could turn some things off and be creative about how they could conserve them. They’ve been able to keep the batteries going longer than they expected. But the new batteries have new technology and they’ll be brand new fresh ones and, hopefully, go for a very, very long time, at least as long as these and hopefully much longer.
You’ve also got a refurbished Fine Guidance Sensor that you’re going to install. How does this sensor work with all the other components to get Hubble looking where the investigators want it to look?
The Fine Guidance Sensor works with the pointing system. You have star trackers which if you see the outside of the telescope, it’s got like a little face on one end of it. It’s got these two sad-looking eyes and a hole in the center of it. Those are actually star trackers. That part of the telescope can measure where the stars are, it can see where the stars are and use that data to help point the telescope. The star tracker feeds information to the Fine Guidance Sensor, it also works with the RSUs which also work with the reaction wheels which spin up and point them, so it’s, it’s a combination of things. It’s the star tracker seeing the star, it’s data coming into the Fine Guidance Sensor, it’s the Rate Sensor Unit being able to point, knowing, at any motion, and being able to point the telescope accurately, and it’s the motion from the, reaction wheel that, that does the big motions and gets the telescope where it wants to go. So it’s all these components working together.
In the case of the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, the STIS, you’re going to repair it rather than replace it. What’s wrong with it and what do you have to do to fix it?
Well, the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph is a big instrument about the size of a refrigerator that was working fine. It blew a, a, a, it blew a fuse, more or less; not really a fuse, a power supply went on it, and we need to change this power supply out. The power supply is about the size of a computer board that you might have in your home computer; it’s like changing one of those out. The problem is that this thing was not supposed to be changed out in space. It’s hard enough to change the thing out on the ground -- we saw this when some of the technicians changed these similar boards out on another instrument. It’s not, not, not an easy thing to do. It’s inside the instrument. If you look at the outside of the instrument, it’s got all these little screws around it, like little buttons. They buttoned this thing up, they put these panels on to cover these things, figuring no one is ever going to get inside, this is going into space, we have to button this up very nicely, and they did a very good job of that. So we’ve got 117 fasteners, small little screws, that are standing between us and removing this plate and, they, most of them have little washers in them and some of them have some staking which is some material that keeps them in there nicely, because no one was ever supposed to screw around with these things. But we’re going to go in there and try to remove them. The plan is to go inside the telescope and, remove a couple of those fasteners, put some, guide studs in, and then put a capture plate on top of it, which is kind of like a fancy piece of Plexiglas that we can cinch down onto this main cover, and it’s got holes in each one of these, for each one of these fasteners there’s a hole in the capture plate that we can stick our tool head through to undo the fastener, so it’s big enough to let the, the skinny tool head through to get to the fastener, but it’s large enough so that none of the material can come out through that hole. So that’s the basic idea, and there’s other little things that people didn’t think of, like the crew that put it in wanted a center of gravity label so they would know where the center of gravity for this instrument was. It was a good idea. When we move it around we’ll know how it’ll rotate about the center. Well, that thing’s an aluminum plate, more or less, that’s stuck on top of a bunch of fasteners. We have to figure out a way to cut that out, so that we have a little cutter that’s going to work on part of this capture plate. There’s a little clamp that we need to remove and we’ve got to get the handrail off and, all these things that these guys spent a lot of time figuring out and making nice and secure -- we have to undo all that now. They never expected anyone to go inside of there. And then we have to get the board out. It was made to withstand launch and not be removed. We have to move that out and then put the new computer board in, which is really a power supply not a computer board, but it looks like a computer board. We’re going to shove in there and we’ll be done.
Now the job of repairing the Advanced Camera for Surveys is spread out over a couple of EVAs. What is it you’re going to fix, and what will that let ACS do to contribute to Hubble’s mission?
It’s a similar repair to the STIS repair. The ACS is also a, a power supply that has gone bad. It’s removing four boards from ACS, but it’s again removing a panel with many non-captive fasteners -- not as many as on STIS but a bunch of them. So they have to put another capture plate on there and take off and replace those boards and then button it back up. It’s over a period of two days, just because we don’t have the time to do it all in one day. We have other priorities and other tasks and we couldn’t dedicate a complete day to it. But we’re hoping to try to get as much as we can on EVA 3 done on it, and if things go really well maybe we can finish that task on the third EVA. If not, we’ll finish it up at the end of EVA 5 at the end of the spacewalks.
You’ve got some thermal blankets to install. Where, where do these go on the telescope?
What they’re concerned about on the telescope is some of the performance of the instruments in the equipment bays, things like some of the electrical components in the computers and the things that kind of keep Hubble going that we’re not going to replace. They’re concerned about the thermal properties of those. In other words, they don’t want them getting too hot, they don’t want to get them too cold, and they can measure how they’re performing and how the cold and the heat and changes of space affect these things, and so they want to get a little bit of insulation on them. These things are behind doors about, about six feet high and about three feet wide, kind of like a door to your house -- kind of, sort of, maybe, you know … an odd-looking house, maybe. [If] we open up these doors that stuff’s behind it. We don’t intend to open up those doors. What we’re going to do is just improve the insulation of the instrument, of those components inside, by putting this New Outer Blanket Layer behind. That acronym is NOBL, so we call them “nobles.” They’re big cookie sheets, more or less, so on these three bays is where we want to put these NOBLs. On a couple of those bays we have to rip off the insulation that’s already there and then put the new insulation on. The smart guys figured out that this will help keep these instruments working better and longer. That’s one of the things we’ll be doing as well.
Now that’s pretty much all the stuff that’s planned, but NASA wouldn’t be NASA if you weren’t planning more than you were planning to actually do. What kind of contingency priorities are you, have you got in your back pocket if there’s extra time?
If we have extra time? Take pictures; look around a little bit, enjoy the view. You know -- we’ll see what happens. On 109, the previous servicing mission, a couple months before the flight, a reaction wheel failed and so we had to figure out a way to fit that in. You’re always ready for something to go so, we’ve still got a little bit of time for something to break between now and then. That would probably be the first priority. But, I’m hoping we get all of our stuff done. Actually the outer blanket layers that you talked about … only one of them is in our nominal timeline so the other ones would kind of be a get-ahead. I don’t know; I’m sure they’ll think of something. Right now I think we’re still trying to figure out what we have on our plate, how we’re going to fit it in.
After all EVAs are done, it's time to put Hubble back to work. Describe the plan for reboost and then releasing the telescope back into orbit in a stable condition.
One, one of the things we can do to help Hubble out is get a little more altitude so we’ll do a boost of it, while it is attached to us we’ll go to, a little higher orbit and give it, give it a little extra distance from the Earth and keep it up there a little bit longer. Once our EVAs are done, and we’re happy with, everything we’ve accomplished, we will grab the telescope with the robot arm again. We’ll release it from the servicing structure, and we’ll put it into position above the payload bay and then we’ll let go of it. Our commander, Scott Altman, will fly us away from it and we’ll leave it on its mission to do its work and make all these wonderful discoveries and get great pictures and sell more calendars.
You guys are going to be the last people, very likely, to ever lay eyes on Hubble as it floats away from you that day. Got any plans for a special good-bye?
Is this like what I might say or …
Yeah, any thoughts about, that you might …
Well, no matter what anyone tells you; I’m not planning to carve my initials in the Hubble, and I won’t pirate anything off it as a last good-bye. I don’t know. I’m sure something’ll hit me. I guess whatever I’m feeling at the time. I think for that type of moment, when it’s over with, hopefully it’ll be very happy, that we have accomplished our mission and, I’ll come up with something for you, I promise, but I think I’ll let the moment take it at that time.
Once that’s done, when will the Hubble ground teams have it ready to go back to work full time and at full strength?
Pretty quick. I think it takes them a couple weeks just to get everything back to where they want it and get things powered on like they want to point it and, and all that stuff. But probably within a few weeks they’ll start generating some images. I would think we’ll start seeing those about a month after the flight. Hopefully it’ll be the new images that, with the new cameras and so on, will be coming out. That’s when we got to see them the last time so that’s what I’m assuming this time.
There's some irony, I think, in the need to have a crew of human beings go out and get a robot telescope in shape to continue its mission. What are your thoughts about the future of space exploration and how all those different aspects of exploration are required to make the whole thing work together?
I think there’s a place for each. I think that Hubble is a really good example of how the human spaceflight program and, the, you called it robotic, or the unmanned, science community, can all work together. You know, Hubble does its job without us being around it 99 percent of the time. We just go up and visit for a couple weeks every few years. But we’ve been able to keep it going. Without Hubble we wouldn’t have the information, and without the human spaceflight program going up there to repair it and keep it going and improving it we wouldn’t have all the images that Hubble sends us. So I think it’s a pretty good relationship between the science community and the unmanned or not having humans around to do the work and being able to control it remotely, and also having people involved to fix it. Hubble has been able to extend our reach and our look into the universe beyond what we can do with humans. And we’re not going to be able to send people out where Hubble sees for a very long time, that’s for sure.