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NASA: 50 Years of Exploration

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I Was Born a NASA Baby

    By John M. Grunsfeld

    Thumbs up - While helping repair the Hubble Space Telescope on the STS-109 mission, March 2002, Grunsfeld signals to crewmates inside space shuttle Columbia’s crew cabin that his third spacewalk is going well.

    Thumbs up - While helping repair the Hubble Space Telescope on the STS-109 mission (March 2002), Grunsfeld signals to crewmates inside space shuttle Columbia’s crew cabin that his third spacewalk is going well.

    1958 was a benchmark year in the history of space exploration in the United States of America. On Jan. 31, 1958, the first American satellite went successfully into orbit. The tiny Jet Propulsion Laboratory Explorer-I orbited Earth, measuring for the first time the radiation belts encircling the globe at an altitude of more than 600 miles. On Oct. 1, 1958, NASA was born when the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 went into effect, having been signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on July 29, 1958. Its purpose was “to provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.” Who could have known the broad and far-reaching impact this would have on the future of the world? I certainly didn’t. I was born 10 days later in a small hospital on the Near North Side of Chicago. While my mother was settling in to the routine of a new baby, Project Mercury, America’s first manned space program, was initiated. By 1961, we had outgrown our small apartment and moved to the South Side of Chicago to reside in a brand-new town home in Hyde Park, built as part of a Chicago urban renewal project.

    On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit Earth in Vostok 1, followed in May by the first American in space, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., aboard Freedom 7. Shortly after this successful flight, President John F. Kennedy set the United States on a course to the moon. About this time, I climbed on our kitchen counter and jumped off, flapping my arms trying to fly.

    Growing up in Hyde Park was just the formula for me as a young, budding scientist. The neighborhood we lived in was still heavily populated by scientists who, led by Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago, helped create the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction. The "atomic-pile," as it was called, was within a short bike ride of my house, under the west stands of Stagg Field at the university.

    I explored the beaches of Hyde Park looking for fossils in the limestone, visited with my physics and chemistry professor neighbors and played in the back alleys between the apartments with my friends just like any young boy. However, we had something new and magical to do as well – watch television. Television was still in its infancy and something novel – and highly controlled, with my viewing strictly limited by my parents. The serendipitous arrival of television at a time when our nascent space program was blossoming allowed me to participate vicariously in the excitement of the late Mercury program, Gemini and, later, Project Apollo.

    NASA scientists described the long hours of isolation the astronauts would have to endure. On the small black-and-white screen, I saw images of astronauts walking to the launch pad, with hoses extending from their shiny space suits attached to boxes with liquid air boiling off what looked like steam. And, of course, I shared in the excitement of watching the rockets roar off into the depths of space, and the splashdown, recovery and ticker-tape parades as our heroes returned from their adventures.

    I may not have known the bigger significance of the events, but I knew it was exciting and incorporated it into my play. Our Electrolux vacuum cleaner and hose became my liquid air cooling unit and our hall closet my space capsule as I prepared for the isolation of space. I would spend what seemed like hours pretending to be in space, wearing a helmet crafted from an ice cream container. My friends and I would spend hours playing jet pilot with small models of various fighters, as all the astronauts were fighter pilots and test pilots. At about age 7, I decided I wanted to be an astronaut. My mother recounted to me that at the time she thought that was a fine idea. It would stimulate me to study science and mathematics, and she thought there was essentially no chance I would ever become an astronaut, so she did not worry. Well, she was partly right.

    Eventually we moved to the northern suburbs of Chicago, and I did continue to be interested in science and math. I also began to broaden my exploration of planet Earth beyond watching the moon (I could not see many stars in the inner city) by exploring in the ravines around my home, sailing on Lake Michigan and rock climbing with the local chapter of the Sierra Club up in Wisconsin. I also enrolled in a high school science program sponsored by NASA at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

    When it came time to go to college, I had decided I wanted to study astrophysics and cosmology. I was a voracious science fiction reader, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was the most oft mentioned school. MIT also boasted the most graduates who were astronauts out of all academic institutions. While my love was the study of science, in the back of my mind I thought it would only be natural to do that science in space. One of the questions in the applications for college was “Where do you see yourself in 20 years?” I wrote about how I wanted to be the chief scientist on a U.S. orbiting space station. At the time, our space program was winding down from Apollo and Skylab. Public interest was waning in the space program, and the space shuttle was still in early development. I am not sure if my conjecture about my career helped or hurt, but I got in, and in 1976 started as an undergraduate at MIT.

    Budding rocket enthusiast - A 20-year old John M. Grunsfeld in Japan for the launch of the Japanese Hinotori solar observing satellite in 1981. Photo courtesy of John M. Grunsfeld

    Budding rocket enthusiast - A 20-year old John M. Grunsfeld in Japan for the launch of the Japanese Hinotori solar observing satellite in 1981.
    Photo courtesy of John M. Grunsfeld

    While at MIT, I worked as a night operator for the NASA Small Astronomy Satellite 3 at the Center for Space Research – not your typical undergraduate job, but MIT is not your typical school. One of the fellows working at the lab was a post-doctoral researcher named Dr. Jeff Hoffman. In my junior year, Jeff was selected as an astronaut in the first class of space shuttle astronauts. I realized that I did not have to be a fighter pilot to be an astronaut and that the path my curiosity in science was taking me might just be the right one to get to space.

    My interest in high-energy astrophysics, the study of neutron stars, black holes and cosmology took me from MIT to spend a year at the University of Tokyo, working with the Hakucho X-ray astronomy satellite. Then I went on to the University of Chicago, where I received a doctorate in physics in 1988. My thesis was based on an experiment I had helped build called the Chicago Cosmic Ray Nuclei Experiment. This instrument flew on space shuttle Challenger, STS-51F, in July 1985. Aboard Challenger was astronaut and astronomer Karl Henize.

    All the while, I continued to go out and explore the mountains of the American West and climb mountains around the world. There seems to be a romantic connection between the study of astronomy and the mountains. My science hero, Enrico Fermi, was an avid mountaineer, as was Lyman Spitzer, the father of the Hubble Space Telescope, and astronaut/astronomers Jeff Hoffman and Karl Henize, to name just a few. The connection cannot just be due to the fact that most great astronomical observatories are located on mountaintops. My observatories were in space. And that is exactly where I wanted to go!

    After getting my doctorate I decided to send in an application to be an astronaut. I knew that if I did not apply, the outcome was known. At the time, both NASA and I were 30 years old. I departed the University of Chicago to accept a research faculty position at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). I continued to work on high-energy astrophysics, sending my experiments to the edge of space on high-altitude balloons, going to mountaintops to observe and, of course, using satellites in Earth orbit.

    A prime part of my work involved observations made by the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory, one of the NASA Great Observatories. Compton was deployed by the space shuttle. During the mission, the main antenna for Compton was stuck closed. Astronauts Jerry Ross and Jay Apt went out on a spacewalk and successfully deployed the antenna. Compton and my career went on to new heights with the flood of new science data that resulted.

    In 1991 I was asked to come to Houston for an interview to be an astronaut. I jumped at the chance, much to the surprise of some of my more stodgy colleagues. I was selected into the 14th group of NASA astronauts in the class of 1992.

    My dreams had taken me from a mountaintop at the Palomar Observatory in 1992 to a space-based observatory on space shuttle Endeavour in 1995, still doing astronomy with the Astro 2 telescopes. Aboard Endeavour during the 16-day mission, I felt like I had finally found my place in the world, or off it anyway. Since then I have flown three further missions, one to the Russian Mir space station in 1997, and two flights to the Hubble Space Telescope in 1999 and 2002. I cannot adequately express the beauty and sense of awe I feel while working on Hubble. It is fair to say that the Hubble Space Telescope is the most productive scientific instrument ever created by humans. When folks ask me why I take the risks of going to space, I tell them that the work on Hubble is worth risking my life. It is that important.

    Now I am preparing to return, as an experienced spacewalking astronaut, the chief Hubble repair astronaut and in-orbit astronomer, to upgrade and repair the Hubble Space Telescope. This will be the final Hubble servicing mission to be accomplished by the space shuttle. Our flight is planned for late summer in 2008, just shy of the 50th birthday of NASA, and mine.

    Who can say how many millions of people have been inspired by the dawn of the Space Age and stirred to reach to great personal and professional heights? For me, growing up with the space program, it only seemed natural that people like me would be able to go to space. Only now that I have had the chance to fly to space, see the wonder of the Earth and return safely do I fully realize how special it has been. The risk is real and significant, but so are the rewards, both for me personally and for society.

    As we push beyond the bounds of Earth orbit, back to the moon, to Mars and beyond, it will only seem natural to the children born in 2008 that they too will be able to explore the great cosmos beyond their homes. The first 50 years of NASA have brought tremendous change to our science, our technology and the knowledge of our place in the universe. With the current pace of technological growth, who knows what the next 50 years of NASA will bring? It will no doubt be just as exciting as the first!