Repairing Hubble a Tall Order

Astronauts who will fix telescope drop by Boulder

The future of the Hubble Space Telescope and billions in taxpayer investment will come down to the work of seven people.

On Friday, five of them - astronauts Scott Altman, Gregory Johnson, John Grunsfeld, Michael Good and Andrew Feustel - stood in their blue NASA jumpsuits in a meeting room at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder.

If the space shuttle Atlantis STS-125 crew succeeds in their May mission, "the people's telescope" could have another decade to add to its long list of astronomical discoveries - not to mention those great screen-saver shots.

STS-125 astronauts at Ball Aerospace

NASA astronauts Scott Altman, left, Andrew Feustel, Michael Good, John Grunsfeld and Gregory Johnson speak to the media near a scale model of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Ken Papelo / The Rocky

But the astronauts have their work cut out for them.

The University of Colorado-designed Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and NASA's Wide Filed Camera 3, $150 million in hardware built by Ball, are the mission's crown jewels. Those will be a relative breeze to install.

The real test will be fixing the Ball-built Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, both felled by power failures.

The repairs involve removing about 150 screws and fasteners never intended to be touched in space, and that's just to get at the wounded instruments.

Then astronauts must replace dead computer boards, some that are obscured by the four-story, 12-ton telescope's internal workings. They will also swap out batteries and other hardware.

It will take five spacewalks. Such intricate work must be done through bulky spacesuits and gloves, as Good described it, like "three sets of oven mitts."

To ease their pain, a Ball team of about 25 worked for six months to come up with 30 specialized tools, said Mark LaPole, Ball's Hubble program manager. The astronauts have practiced the fixes dozens of times in a giant swimming pool at NASA's Johnson Space Center. As if they weren't busy enough with such fixes, they recently got another to-do.

The mission, which was scheduled for launch on Oct. 8, has been delayed as NASA and Ball engineers test a 20-year-old piece of computer equipment. It will replace one that failed on the orbiting telescope in September, LaPole said.

The men in blue jumpsuits seemed itching to get to Hubble - or back to Hubble , as is the case for Grunsfeld, a Ph.D. astronomer who has fixed it twice before. He's aware of the dangers he and his crewmates face.

"Hubble is worth risking my life," Grunsfeld said.

In Boulder, the stakes vary. For Ball Aerospace, CEO David Taylor said, "It's important not so much from a business perspective - we've been basically paid. But it brings us to fruition on all the work Ball has done on Hubble since the late 1970s."

James Green, the CU astronomer who designed the $70 million Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, said that CU has hired seven scientists to analyze data coming from the ultraviolet instrument and could hire four more if the repair mission succeeds.