How High Is Up?

September 29, 1988.

Space Shuttle Discovery sat on its launch pad.

Five seasoned astronauts waited.

They had been hand picked to fly the rebuilt ship after seven of their number were lost in the Challenger fires.

Two hundred-fifty thousand other souls had surrounded the spaceport to lend their support. Twenty-four hundred members of the news media had settled on the press site. They would witness NASA’s comeback from its worst disaster.

At 11:37 A.M. Eastern time, Discovery’s main engines roared. Seconds later the twin solid rockets fired. The assembled thousands crossed fingers and gritted teeth. The two rebuilt solid rockets lifted the five astronauts skyward—boosting the space plane and rocket combination straight and true. Two minutes later the huge assemblage broke into wild cheers as the boosters, blamed for the Challenger accident, burned out and peeled harmlessly away from the Shuttle and its human cargo. Six minutes later, the main engines shut down, and the five seasoned astronauts sailed safely into Earth orbit. Cheers erupted from the Launch Control Center at the Cape and in the Mission Control Center near Houston.

President Ronald Reagan opened an awards ceremony in the White House Rose Garden with the announcement, “America is back in space.”

NASA had spent thirty-two months fixing the O-ring seal and other Shuttle problems, but to make sure they drove down the road of caution, Discovery’s mission was designed to be as benign as possible. Six hours into the “Return-to-Flight,” astronauts Mike Lounge and Dave Hilmers released from the Shuttle’s cargo bay a $100 million tracking and data relay satellite. The huge communications spacecraft was the replacement for the TDRS lost in the Challenger accident. The new satellite’s onboard rocket motor fired and the new tracking and data relay satellite raced to a stationary orbit 22,300 miles above the equator. There it could cover a third of the Earth as it joined the first TDRS, launched earlier.

Discovery’s astronauts poignantly remembered the five men and two women, who died aboard Challenger, before gliding to a landing on a dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Four hundred thousand gratefuls were there to meet them.

Discovery’s veteran crew sport Hawaiian shirts given to them by its Cape Canaveral launch team. Front left: Dick Covey, pilot, and Rick Hauck, commander, center. Front right: John “Mike” Lounge. Back left: George “Pinky” Nelson. Back right: Dave Hilmers. (NASA).

The comeback continued two months later when the space shuttle Atlantis soared into orbit on a secret mission solely for the Defense Department, and then opened the door for science to dominate America’s space efforts. The crew of Atlantis deployed the Space Shuttle’s first planetary probe. A Magellan planetary ship was sent streaking away to Venus with radar to look through the thick Venusian clouds and map the planet’s steamy surface. A second Shuttle planetary mission began October 18, 1989, when astronauts launched a three-ton Galileo spacecraft on a six-year, 2.4 billion–mile journey for up-close photographs of Jupiter. Other major planetary craft that were sent racing from shuttle cargo bays included Ulysses, to orbit and study the sun, and the Gamma Ray Observatory, to measure space radiation.

NASA entered the final decade of the twentieth century fully recovered from the worst accident in space flight history, and I entered the 1990s recovered from a coronary bypass operation at Emory University. My friends were amazed at how lucky I had been not only with my health, but with the Space Shuttle launch schedule itself. None of my health problems caused me to miss a single space flight, but living on the ocean in 1990s had become a serious problem.

No longer was Cocoa Beach the quaint little seaside village with its main beachside drive lined with swaying Australian pines. No longer were the easygoing villagers enjoying the slow pace of Florida living. It had become what many had predicted, another Fort Lauderdale, lined with one condominium after the other. There were now twenty times the number of people stacked on every inch of its once pristine sand.

Jo and I looked at each other and nodded. It was time, definitely time to move to Merritt Island—an island bordered on its east side by the Banana River lagoon and on its west side by the Indian River estuary, an island separating the beaches from Florida’s mainland where lowlying hills on its southern tip host Honeymoon Lake, a body of water dug by mound-building natives four thousand years ago, a tropical winter sanctuary today for geese and ducks from the north, and an equal sanctuary from greenback-laden tourists.

We managed to secure a piece of the lake’s north shore, and my wife began drawing up plans. By the time it was time for the most important Space Shuttle mission of the 1990s, the launch of the massive Hubble space telescope, we had moved into our new island home.

Hubble was set free in Earth orbit by the crew aboard Discovery and was hailed as the most advanced telescope ever built for astronomy.

The massive observatory, the size of a city bus, was a dream started in 1946 by Princeton astronomer Lyman Spitzer. Spitzer had urged our government to build an orbiting space platform with revolutionary instruments to probe the universe. No matter how powerful the astronomical telescopes on Earth were, they would never see clearly through the planet’s thick and pollution-muddied atmosphere. A telescope orbiting above Earth’s atmosphere could survey the heavens with unmatched clarity.

But once in orbit, Hubble was sidetracked by flawed vision. Two months after its fiery ascent from Cape Canaveral in April 1990, embarrassed astronomers admitted Hubble’s goals were seriously compromised. Some systems worked well, but not the telescope’s ability to see deep into the universe—back to near the beginning of time.

The most celebrated telescope since Galileo assembled his first optical instrument was sending Earth blurred images. Hubble’s primary mirror worked dismally; the observatory electronics sent back pictures that were fuzzier than snapshots taken by the unsteady hands of a child. The precious eight-foot primary mirror, which it had taken five years to grind and polish to supposed perfection, was flawed.

The mirror was ten-thousandths of an inch too flat.

That sounds insignificant. It is only one-fiftieth of the diameter of a human hair, which means it’s invisible to the human eye. But in the optical world of mirrors and lenses built to see twelve billion light years across the universe, that amount of error was enormous. So Hubble became instant grist for late-night television comedians and a butt of ridicule for American science.

In Arizona State University’s astronomy program, scientists were hard at work to come up with a fix for the myopic observatory. The result was COSTAR (corrective optics space telescope axial replacement), a box the size of a telephone booth. On Earth, it weighed 650 pounds, and it contained ten mortised mirrors. It was about as close to technical magic as astronomers and engineers could get. Each of its ten mirrors was no larger than a man’s thumbnail!

The plan was for spacewalking astronauts to fly a Space Shuttle to an orbiting rendezvous with the massive telescope, grasp Hubble tightly with the Shuttle’s robotic arm, and move the large observatory to within their reach in the Shuttle’s cargo bay. There the spacewalkers would begin their “save the Hubble” week in space.

Among their repairs, the spacewalkers would slide COSTAR in place within the main structure, where the mirrors would shorten the beam of light images captured by the flawed edges of the primary mirror. By shortening the beam of light exactly two-millionths of a meter, Hubble would be able to focus accurately. Once the ten mirrors were in place, astronomers in ground control would transmit instructions for focusing COSTAR’s mirrors by tipping them into thousands of different positions.

But more than COSTAR was necessary to bring Hubble back to pristine performance. New forty-foot solar panels would replace those that shook when the ship passed between day and night, through temperature changes of 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Two magnetometers that had lost their precision attitude control would be removed to make way for new ones. A series of critical gyroscopes that pointed Hubble on command had either failed or were failing; new gyros would be installed. COSTAR would be eased by the spacewalkers into its housing. A new computer would be added to Hubble to eliminate “electronic memory lapses” and increase the space telescope’s reliability. And finally, the spacewalkers would repair flawed relays in the spectrograph that scanned the radiations of the universe.

Space Shuttle Endeavour departed Earth at 4:27 A.M. Eastern time on December 2, 1993, with astronauts and fifteen thousand pounds of precious tools, equipment, and supplies. No sooner than Endeavour had settled into orbit with its veteran crew, I was in the air headed for Mission Control in Houston. The Hubble repair mission had captured the public’s imagination like no space mission since the days of Apollo moon landings, and Tom Brokaw, along with master producers Phil Griffin and Jeff Gralnick, wanted my experience reporting Hubble’s repair on the NBC Nightly News.

The centuries-old technology that built Christopher Columbus’s three sailing ships passes the twentieth-century Space Shuttle Endeavour, awaiting liftoff on its launch pad. The replicas of the Santa Maria, Nina, and Pinta were part of the Spain ’92 Foundation tour of American ports to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the New World. (NASA)

When Endeavour reached Hubble’s orbit, the astronauts found and seized the observatory with the Shuttle’s robotic arm as planned, and then the spacewalkers, equipped with pressure suits and working in pairs, went through an astonishing week of giving the crippled telescope new life and sparkling accuracy.

Floating a constant 375 miles above a curving horizon, looking like living snowmen, the spacewalkers performed weightless ballets to make their repairs. It was a feat unparalleled in history, surgeons of the new age operating beneath a star-filled theater. There had not been so much attention paid by billions of people since astronauts walked on the moon. With producer Phil Griffin running interference for us in New York, Tom Brokaw’s viewers, as well as those of NBC’s early-morning Today Show, were looking over the spacewalkers’ shoulders. Live television cameras followed their every move. We from NBC were sleeping in two shifts. The crew and I were up at 4:00 A.M. to take care of Today and then back to bed, then up again at 2:00 P.M. to take care of Tom Brokaw’s Nightly News. A couple of times we came close to meeting ourselves coming when we were going.

Floating on the end of the shuttle Endeavour’s robotic arm at the top of the mammoth Hubble space telescope, spacewalkers Story Musgrave and Jeffrey Hoffman are seen above the west coast of Australia. (NASA).

For the spacewalkers, performing microsurgery on Hubble’s systems, as well as moving bulky and cumbersome equipment into the right slot at the right speed and with perfect aim, was like trying to weave a frond basket wearing thick mittens. The astronauts performed eleven major repairs while Hubble managers on the ground sweated out every move. One misstep could wreck the mission and damage Hubble beyond repair. Yet, from changing fuses to sliding the refrigerator-sized COSTAR into the telescope’s bowels with less than an inch of room to spare, they pulled it off, against terrible odds, with nonstop perfection.

Finally the nerve-racking mission was nearing its end. The old solar panels were removed from their mountings. Spacewalker Kathy Thornton, with her five children on the ground clinging to the family’s television set, had her feet secured to the end of the Space Shuttle’s long robotic arm. Thornton held the twisted panels in her hands and pushed them away in tantalizing slow motion. Commander Dick Covey aimed the Shuttle’s rocket motors at the old solar wings. Streaming rocket thrust struck the golden panels, and they flapped eerily up and down, looking like mankind’s first space bird. Kathy’s children jumped up and down before the television, screaming, “Mom is Superwoman,” as the discarded solar panels began falling back toward Earth’s atmosphere to disappear in a burst of flame.

Kathy Thornton and her crewmates returned to Earth, and Hubble managers began chewing their nails. They now had to wait to determine whether the orbital telescope surgery was as successful as they dared hope.

Power was fed to Hubble’s controls. The space observatory accepted its checkout commands with a thumbs-up. The orbiting telescope was alive. Astronomers gathered before the huge television screen monitoring Hubble’s cameras in the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. The control center was bathed in the same tension as a busy maternity ward.

The master television screen flickered, then its picture steadied, and there it was—the first image from the rebuilt Hubble. Star AGK +81 D226… clear and sharp. It was perfection, and those in the room stared at one another until the tension was gone and applause, cheering, and backslapping began. Astronomers hugged one another fiercely, and NASA’s top scientist, Ed Weiler, told those of us in the media, “It’s beyond our wildest expectations.” From nearsightedness to super vision, this was the new Hubble, and NBC space correspondent Robert Hager quipped, “It’s amazing what you can do with a $629 million pair of contact lenses.”

Before the astronauts’ rescue-and-repair flight, Hubble could see out to four billion light-years from Earth. Now the massive space telescope’s “vision reach” had tripled to twelve billion light years. Its new clarity would fulfill the promise of the massive orbiting telescope—its lens peering almost to the beginning of time.

Hubble fired the most doubting imaginations, because in the space telescope’s twenty-year lifetime it would answer many eager questions.

Were there other planets outside our solar system? Hubble answered yes as it showed astronomers hundreds in our galactic neighborhood.

How old is the universe? Hubble says 13.9 billion years.

Is the speed of light really the ultimate velocity? Or will we find unanticipated matter and energy that travel faster? What exactly is dark matter? Does it really make up most of the universe? And what happens to the trillions of tons of matter that vanish into the maw of black holes? What are the white gushers in space pouring vast amounts of subatomic particles into our universe—with no identifiable source or known reason? And is the universe expanding? Hubble says yes as it observes exploding stars in galaxies whose light was emitted when the universe was half its present age, and the space telescope reports the universe’s expansion is accelerating—being driven by an unknown force.

With Hubble still marching into the future, with astronauts planning one more maintenance-and-repair mission so the magnificent space telescope can study and photograph the first stars and galaxies formed twelve billion years ago, will we come to understand our place in the order of being? And of most importance, will we every answer the small child’s question, “How high is up?”

Stay tuned.

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