“Difficulty is the excuse history never accepts.” Edward R. Murrow
May 20, 1990 – Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas: The Hubble telescope team of scientists, astronomers, engineers and physicists eagerly awaited the first pictures from the recently-launched Hubble telescope orbiting 365 miles above the earth. When the initial images from the M-100 galaxy – 55 million light-years away – were blurry, the controlroom was eerily quiet. NASA had promised spectacular views of the deep reaches of space that would improve understanding of the universe, but something was terribly wrong.
NASA’s project to launch a $1.5 billion high-powered telescope into space had received plenty of criticism from the news media and taxpayers. Some argued that there were already many land-based telescopes around the world pointed to outer space and putting one into orbit seemed like a waste of taxpayer dollars. With the news of fuzzy images from Hubble, Newsweek Magazine’s cover captured the nation’s sentiment: The Hubble Telescope: NASA’s $1.5 Billion Blunder.
Four years after the Challenger space shuttle disaster, NASA once again found itself at the center of controversy. The telescope was hundreds of miles above the earth and orbiting at 17,000 miles per hour. Making repairs would be extremely difficult, but NASA had to figure out how to fix the telescope. The space agency’s reputation and future funding hung in the balance.
After months of problem solving and analysis, NASA discovered that the primary mirror had been ground incorrectly. The mirror’s edges had been polished too flatly, resulting in the mirror being off by the width of a sheet of paper. The Hubble telescope was near-sighted.
Enter Story Musgrave: Having grown up on a Massachusetts farm, driving and repairing tractors was important to Musgrave, reading books not so much. He dropped out of high school to join the Marine Corps. Later he begged a dean at Syracuse University to take him on probation and he attended on the GI bill. Musgrave earned a B.S. in mathematics from Syracuse, a B.A. in chemistry from Marietta College and a medical degree from Columbia University, where he specialized in neurosurgery.
In 1967, always looking for a new adventure, Musgrave joined the newly created National Aerospace and Science Administration (NASA). He worked on the Hubble Space Telescope from its inception in the mid-1970s to its launch in April 1990. Musgrave’s mission was to identify every possible failure and to develop a repair procedure to fix it.
In 18 years, he created 12,000 pages of repair procedures, including various spacewalks and tools for each repair situation. When Hubble failed one month after launch, it was time for 58-year-old Story Musgrave to don his spacesuit and go fix it.
In early 1992, Musgrave was chosen mission commander to lead a team of seven astronauts to train for a trip to Hubble. At the same time, NASA engineers and scientists were working non-stop to design a fix for the faulty telescope.
On December 23, 1993, Musgrave and six other astronauts lifted off in the space shuttle Endeavor on an unprecedented mission to restore the Hubble telescope’s sight and NASA’s reputation. Three days later, they rendezvoused with Hubble and used the shuttle’s robotic arm to capture the massive telescope, which is the size of an 18-wheeler. The team spent more than a week attached to the telescope. They completed a record-setting five days of spacewalks while making a dozen repairs, including the most important one – fitting Hubble with a large contact lens to correct his vision. Musgrave personally led three of the spacewalks.
When the first pictures were beamed back, there was no silent control room in Houston, shouts and tears of joy were the order of the day. Story Musgrave and his team had done it; they had restored the optics. Two years after the Hubble repairs, the telescope spotted the spectacular “Pillars of Creation,” the most famous astronomical discovery of the 20thCentury. Part of the Eagle Nebula located 7,000 light-years from earth, the discovery provides scientists with insight as to how new stars are forming.
Today, more than 30 years after its launch, and a decade past its anticipated life, the Hubble telescope continues to explore the deepest regions of the universe. 87-year-old Story Musgrave is NASA’s most formally educated astronaut and the only one to fly on all five space shuttles. He lives in Florida and is a consultant with the Disney Corporation.