Friday, November 15, 2013

NASA Hubble Space Telescope rescue story

Space Shuttle Endeavour astronauts discussed their 1993 mission to repair the ailing Hubble Space Telescope. 

From left: mission specialist Tom Akers, pilot Ken Bowersox, mission commander Dick Covey, mission specialist and AeroAstro professor Jeff Hoffman, and payload commander Story Musgrave. 

Credit: William Litant

In the past two decades, the Hubble Space Telescope has produced thousands of staggering images of the universe—capturing colliding galaxies, collapsing stars, and pillars of cosmic gas and dust with its high-precision cameras.

These images have driven many scientific discoveries, and have made their way into popular culture, having been featured on album covers, fashion runways, and as backdrops for sci-fi television episodes.

With Hubble's advanced capabilities today, it's hard to recall that the telescope was once gravely threatened but shortly after its launch in 1990, scientists discovered a flaw that jeopardized Hubble's entire endeavor.

What followed was a political and public backlash against the $1 billion mission—and NASA, the agency that oversaw it.

For the next three years, engineers scrambled to design a mission to repair the telescope in space—an ambitious plan that would result in the most complex Space Shuttle mission ever flown.

"[Hubble] was never meant to be a suspense story," Jeffrey Hoffman, a member of the original astronaut crew charged with repairing the telescope, said this week at MIT.

Nevertheless, at the time, the future of Hubble—and of NASA itself—seemed to hinge on the repair mission.

On Dec. 2, 1993, Hoffman and six other astronauts aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour began an 11-day mission, named STS-61, that involved five spacewalks—the most of any shuttle mission—to restore Hubble's vision.

Jeffrey Hoffman
This week, Hoffman, now a professor of the practice in MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, was joined by other members of the STS-61 crew in reflecting on Hubble's rescue mission in an all-day symposium held in MIT's Bartos Theatre.

Talks and panel discussions—often with the air of a warm reunion—explored Hubble's initial promise; its failure shortly after launch; and the planning, training, and execution of a rescue mission to fix the telescope.

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