What It Took To Get Hubble Into Space

24:52 minutes

the hubble space telescope in orbit above earth
The Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

For most Americans, the story of the Hubble Space Telescope began on April 24th, 1990, the launch date of the now 30 year-old observatory. But for astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, Hubble’s journey began on a wintery day in early 1985 at a meeting at NASA headquarters, where she was assigned to the mission that would take Hubble into space. 

a woman in an astronaut suit
Kathy Sullivan in 1984. Credit: NASA

For the next five years, Sullivan, a former oceanographer and first female spacewalker, got to know Hubble intimately, training and preparing for its deployment. If Hubble’s automatic processes failed as it was detaching and unfolding from the spacecraft, Sullivan would be the one to step in and help. And she almost had to. 

Sullivan joins Ira to share the untold stories of Hubble’s launch and her time at NASA as told in her new book Handprints on Hubble.

Further Reading

Donate To Science Friday

Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.


Segment Guests

Kathryn Sullivan

Kathryn Sullivan is a former NASA astronaut and the former Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA administrator. She’s based in Columbus, Ohio.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: For most Americans, the story of the Hubble Space Telescope began 30 years ago on April 24, 1990, the day the first of its kind observatory was launched into orbit. But for astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, the story of Hubble began on a wintry day five years earlier when she was called into the office of flight crew operations director, George Abbey, and named as a member of the five-person crew that would take Hubble into space.

And for the next five years, Sullivan, a former oceanographer and the first American female spacewalker, got to know Hubble intimately, training and preparing for its deployment. If automatic processes shut down or failed as Hubble was detaching and unfolding from the spacecraft, Sullivan would be the one to step in and help, and she almost had to. Dr. Sullivan shares that story, as well as others, in her new book Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Invention.

And if you have a question about the early days of Hubble or NASA’s first class of female astronauts, or you just want to talk to Kathryn Sullivan, hey, we’re happy to have you do that. 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri. Dr. Sullivan is a former astronaut. And also, you might not have known, she was Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator. Welcome to Science Friday.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Thanks, Ira. It’s great to be with you.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. You were a member of NASA’s first class of female astronauts in 1978. Is that right?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: That’s right. We were the first group hired for the space shuttle, and so we had two genres of astronauts. We had test pilots, as everyone had come to know before back from Mercury days. But in our class, we had quite a large cadre, in fact, 20 out of the 35 that were scientists and engineers. We were going to be this new thing called mission specialists.

IRA FLATOW: Yes. I know Jeff Hoffman from back in the day when he was working with us on Science Friday and my other reporting duties. You call yourself the “Thirty-Five New Guys.” Was that an official NASA name?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: It became an official name. It’s sort of a– one of the first little hazing rituals, I suppose, for each batch of astronauts that arrives at Johnson Space Center is pick out your nickname. And we put our minds together and thrashed around every which way from Sunday. It was hard to come up with anything too very clever.

And besides that, there is an acronym in the military flying circles, TFNG. It stands for The blank New Guy. I’ll let you and your listeners fill in what the blank might be. So we thought the cleverest thing we should do, since we had the T and the F already and our 35, was just go with that flow and become the TFNGs, the Thirty-Five New Guys.

IRA FLATOW: Thirty-Five New Guys. And you came to NASA with a PhD in oceanography. I mean, that’s looking in the other direction, isn’t it?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Yeah, it is, through all the murky water as well. But the thing that was in common, or at least that struck me as being an element in common, was the putting together of expeditions. So you’ve got some scientific event, or quest, or discovery, or measurement you want to make, you need to do either out at sea or up in space.

What kind of vessel can take you there? How does it work? What are its peculiarities and handling qualities? And what’s the equipment you need to take with you to do that work? How do you make the two mesh together and really function together smoothly?

And then, oh, by the way, at sea just as in a spaceflight, the one thing you can count on is events will not unfold completely as you had laid out in your plan. So how adroit, how nimble are you? How much have you thought in advance and equipped yourself with everything from spare parts to backup mechanisms so that even when life deals you a different hand than you expected, you can still achieve the objectives that you were after?

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with former astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, and talking about the first days of the space race and the Hubble in that– not the space race but the Hubble. Did you find that you were well-equipped, or did you have to start over again? Because, you know, being– looking at the oceans, you have to relearn everything.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Yeah. You know, we all sort of started over. Our first year, all 35 of us, was spent going together through a very elaborate curriculum that I call graduate school for astronauts. So if you think of any aspect of science or engineering that faintly pertains to spaceflight, everything from human health and physiology, to solar physics, to spacecraft engineering, to meteorology, we all went through a really condensed crash course that was about equivalent to a first year graduate student course, I would say. We all went through all of those together.

At the end of that year, we had a couple things going for us. We’d kind of bonded as a class. We knew each other pretty well now. We knew each other’s respective areas of expertise.

And, you know, I was maybe out in front on the meteorology, and the oceanography, and the geology, but I caught up a lot on the spacecraft engineering and physiology. And so it cross fed in all these wonderful directions. So we all scampered a lot during that first year and learned an awful lot during that first year.

But I did feel actually well-equipped because I wasn’t going on the shuttle to continue doing oceanography. I was really going to be an operator and operate equipment, experiments, satellites on behalf of other people who would remain on the ground and not get to do their own work in space. And again, that connected in my mind back to the work I had done on oceanographic research vessels.

IRA FLATOW: Did you ask to be a– go with the Hubble Space Telescope, assigned to that, or were you just open to whatever they assigned you to?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: You know, I think every astronaut is open to being assigned to absolutely every flight. I was just finishing up from my first flight, actually, and the White House had tapped me to serve on a Presidential Policy Commission. So I was sort of buried in those two things. And it was a delightful surprise for my boss to call me in, really so quickly after my first flight, and tap me for a second flight.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, so you– and you made multiple flights. And were you surprised what it was like to be up in space?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Yeah. On some level, I think you have to be surprised. It doesn’t matter how much you watch other people fly in space. And I think I had watched every astronaut since Alan Shepard. The experience of it and the journey, your own journey of preparing yourself as a crew member until that moment that you launch and you get into orbit, you know, that– the journey itself changes the experience that you have when you’re doing it instead of watching someone else or looking at someone else’s pictures.

I think I was surprised in the right kind of ways, not in ways that really were an obstacle or a shock that might prevent me from getting the important things done we needed to get done. But I was wonderfully surprised by just how much fun it is to goof around in zero gravity, and absolutely surprised, despite all of my background and all my studies, absolutely flabbergasted by how exquisitely beautiful the Earth is when you see it with your own eyes.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Something like Carl Sagan, the Pale Blue Dot, and we’re all in this together, right?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Yeah, we were more–

IRA FLATOW: Get that impression?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: We were more pale blue beach ball. We were not as far away as Carl had in mind when he–

IRA FLATOW: Can I quote you on that?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: –coined that phrase.

IRA FLATOW: That was a good– that was a good [LAUGHTER].

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Sure, go ahead.

IRA FLATOW: Pale blue beach ball from Dr. Sullivan. We’re talking with Kathryn Sullivan, author of Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Invention. If you’d like to talk with her, 844-724-8255 is our number.

We’ll come back and talk about a lot of really interesting aspects of the Hubble Space Telescope you didn’t know of, like the original idea was to bring it back to Earth for repairs every time you wanted to repair it. Boy, that didn’t happen, and for a good reason. We’ll talk to Dr. Sullivan about that journey. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after the break.

Hey there. Ira here, coming at you with some great news about how you– yes, you– can make a big impact right now. Science Friday has a dollar for dollar donation match in effect, which means that if you make a donation right now, it will be doubled. Yes, I said doubled. You heard me say this before. Any size donation makes a difference, and that’s never been more true than now.

I know you care about Science Friday, so don’t wait on this opportunity. Go to sciencefriday.com/give, and double your impact. Thanks.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking with Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, former astronaut, most recently Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator. Dr. Sullivan was part of the five-man crew that accompanied Hubble on its voyage into space nearly 30 years ago. And she has a new book out called Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Invention.

And I have to ask you this question because you did accompany the Hubble into space. And you have handprints on Hubble, but you say in the book you never got to touch the Hubble.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: It’s true, but I claim I have metaphorical handprints on Hubble because of the work I did leading up to launch. And more importantly, and a point that gets really to what my motivation was to write the book, there was this gang of engineers– some at the Lockheed Martin Corporation, some in Houston, some in Huntsville, Alabama– who really did this foundational work of making sure that Hubble was repairable.

We had the tools, we had the equipment, we had the detailed knowledge of the telescope. And we could hand that all off to whichever crews would come along, whichever astronauts would come along actually given the challenge of going up and fixing it. So my argument is, I think I have a metaphorical handprint on Hubble. And as importantly, so do all these unsung engineers who laid that vital foundation.

IRA FLATOW: No argument on this end. What I find interesting, and some of the great little nuggets that I never knew about– and I covered the Hubble, and I covered the shuttle from day one– is the idea that the Hubble was originally made or thought about– we knew it would have to be repaired and parts would wear out. And we would bring that– we’d bring the Hubble back to Earth, fix it and send it up again? Is that right?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: That’s right. And it surprised me, too, to discover that and to discover how long that idea held on. That idea kind of came about in the late ’60s as, again, the space shuttle itself is just a concept that’s emerging. So shuttle and Hubble really came into being at the same time and played off each other in many different ways before either of them was a real spacecraft. The engineers were counting, banking on each other back and forth.

And so the first idea was scientific instruments, maybe tape recorders, maybe batteries, that list of things we’ll count on astronaut crews from the shuttle to go up and swap those out maybe every two years or so. But a lot of the other stuff, the really, you know, guts of the telescope, the electronics boxes, that’s going to be harder to do. You’re not going to be able to design that for spacewalks. So every five years or so, we’ll bring the Hubble back to Earth, and we’ll do those tough jobs in a nice facility on the ground. That idea lasted till something around 1984, as far as I could tell from papers in the archives.

And I think what really happened is, with a few years of experience with the space shuttle, seeing it was more expensive to operate than had been estimated, the turnaround times between flights were not as fast as an airliner, and a lot of customers had signed up. So I think finally the Hubble team realized, if you ever bring this thing back, it’s going to end up in a museum, not ever back in space again. And by the way, you’re going to have to maintain this tremendous amount of really very specialized and expensive equipment on the ground to handle it when it comes home. So are you really going to keep all that going for a two-week visit every five years? That doesn’t make any sense.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I think– I think of all the accomplishments of the space program and, let’s say, post moon, post lunar missions, that I think the Hubble– the photographs coming back from the Hubble and still coming back from the Hubble, the publicity given to the cosmos out there is one of probably NASA’s greatest, greatest public achievements in telling us about and keeping the public informed about space.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Yeah, I would agree with that, Ira. And I think Hubble is unique or maybe up here with the Apollo missions in that sense. But it’s certainly the first, I would argue only, telescope whose work has entered the public imagination in pop culture to the degree it has.

That’s at least a bit due to the fact that Hubble came into being as the computer revolution was really taking off, and the internet was coming into being, the thing that we know it to be today. So getting– getting information out to huge numbers of people suddenly was happening at the speed of light. But still, you know, I see it to this day on cell phone covers, on the side of U-Haul trucks, on people’s socks and t-shirts. I mean, it’s really pervaded our culture in a way that I can’t remember any other scientific instrument doing.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones for a phone call or two. 844-724-8255. Let’s go to Jim in Birmingham, Alabama. Hi, Jim.

JIM: Thank you. Dr. Thornton, I’m actually from your hometown, Montgomery. And my daughter also graduated from– she graduated from the Aerospace Engineering School at Auburn. And I used to speak in her classrooms and lots of other classrooms about getting kids interested in science, math, and engineering, and management.

And my daughter was actually told by another child in her class one day that girls don’t do science. So that glass ceiling was still around. That was in the 1990s. She’s a level 3 engineer now and just accepted a new job with Lockheed Martin that you mentioned.

But what was it like for you? I think you went to civil engineer high school in very conservative Montgomery and then to Auburn, which was male-dominated–

IRA FLATOW: Jim, I’m not sure you have–

JIM: –conservative.

IRA FLATOW: — the right– I’m not sure you have the right astronaut. But anyhow, let’s talk about the glass ceiling. What do you think about it, Dr. Sullivan?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Yeah. You’re confusing me with Kathryn Thornton, who we all called KT in the astronaut corps, because she spells her name the same way I do. And KT did fly on the first Hubble servicing mission as well as a number of other flights. I don’t come from quite that same background but not all that dissimilar, and I’m a bit older than KT. So it was certainly true that it was rare and in most circles considered either unusual or just not done for women to go into field camp as a geologist, for women to go out to sea as an oceanographer.

Lucky for me, I was raised by parents that inoculated me with the notion that no one gets to edit what I’m interested in. And no one gets to tell me what I can’t pursue. I may have to fight my way forward a bit, but if you’re interested in something, if you’re passionate about something, you invest in it and pursue it to the best of your abilities. And don’t respond to the peanut gallery.

IRA FLATOW: I alluded to this in the intro in the segment. Can you share with us what happened when Hubble deployed in space and the spacewalk that almost was?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Yeah. So Hubble was connected by a power cord to the space shuttle while we took it up into orbit. And at some stage as we’re unbuttoning it and getting ready to lift it out of the cargo bay, at some stage, of course, we unplugged that power and put it on to– put Hubble onto its own batteries. The batteries could only run for a certain amount of time before they would run down so low it would be dangerous. And so that little window of time, everything had to go right.

Antennas had to unfold. Most importantly, the solar arrays, which were very complicated mechanisms– they were like pull down window curtains– they had to unfold. And Bruce McCandless, my spacewalking buddy, and I, we were prepared and trained and spring loaded to jump on our spacesuits, and grab a wrench, and go outside, and manually backup any of those events that didn’t happen correctly. Well, sure enough, one of the solar arrays did not spool off of its roller the way it should.

So Bruce and I drove into our spacesuits. We got in the airlock. We’re going through all the steps of emptying out the airlock and heading outside. And just before we were going to dump the rest of the air from the airlock and go outside, just before that, an engineer on the ground recognized that the problem was a faulty sensor, not a real issue. So he sent a software command that solved it.

And Bruce and I, having worked on Hubble for five years, were the only members of the crew that did not see it deployed. We were both staring at the very sterile white interior wall of the airlock while all the excitement happened on the upper deck.

IRA FLATOW: How disappointing was that? I mean, you are in the suit ready to go.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: You know, Ira, honestly in the moment, I was just so focused on, where are we with Hubble? Where are we on the battery clock? I mean, it was so great to get to be a part of making this instrument happen and get into space. At the moment, I just was still in the moment and listening to all the events as they unfolded.

One of my crewmates, Charlie Bolden, actually came on the intercom and apologized to Bruce and me for leaving us stuck in the airlock instead of getting us out so we could see the deployment. And we both said, no, no. That’s fine. You guys carry on.

Get this done. You know, this is bigger than a sightseeing opportunity. Make sure Hubble survives.

IRA FLATOW: You write in the book about how the Challenger disaster actually kept Hubble grounded for more than four– for four more years. But it actually ended up helping the mission?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: It certainly did help the lifetime of the telescope. As I said earlier, at the start of things, there was a fairly short list of boxes and components on the telescope that astronauts were meant to change on orbit. And everything else, it was imagined, would be done when you brought the telescope down to the ground. Right around the time Bruce and I started working on the telescope, that notion flipped on its head. And now suddenly, everything is going to have to be repaired or replaced by astronauts in orbit.

So our charge became not only be ready for the things that might go wrong when you deploy it but dive into every other box on the telescope. And do everything you can to make it a little easier, a little more friendly for– working in a spacesuit’s like working in two snowmobile suits with a bucket on your head. It’s very cumbersome work arrangement. So see what you can do to make sure that these other devices actually could be handled by spacewalking astronauts.

And in a couple of instances, we made modifications to units on the telescope itself that absolutely saved the day several years later when indeed astronauts went up and had to change out one of these really gnarly impossible boxes. And those changes had made it possible– possible but still horrendously difficult– but they got it done.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. We asked people to call in via the SciFri VoxPop app, and we asked their questions about living in space. We had this from Reed from Colorado Springs.

REED: Last month, I showed the live footage of Koch and Meirs working outside in space to my students when the following question came up. Do astronauts ever use hammers either inside or outside the ISS?

IRA FLATOW: There you go.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Yeah, good question. The toolkit does include a hammer, certainly did on shuttle and the last time I saw the station toolkit. But I’m not aware of the hammer actually ever being used. We never used one on any of my shuttle flights.

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. It’s in the toolbox?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Yeah. Well, you know, it’s just in case you had to apply a sharp force to something to put it into position or get it out of position. But you don’t build space stations and space shuttles with nails. So you’re not using it for nails.

IRA FLATOW: So you have a– do you have a special kind of ratchet or ratchet wrench or something that you use?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Yeah. The ratchet wrench on orbit is kind– is a different one. And one thing that’s particular about it is where the handle connects to the wrench head, that little pivot point, we’ve got about a three inch diameter disk there. And that’s so when you’re working in a spacesuit with it, you can just put a flat hand on the top of the wrench at that pivot point and make sure that the ratchet will really ratchet.

I think anyone who’s worked with a ratchet wrench knows sometimes you actually kind of need to hold onto it and make sure that it clicks back into position with each swing of the wrench. You can’t grip your hand that tight with the spacesuit. So we wanted to be able to use a flat hand.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones to Birmingham, Alabama and David. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

DAVID: Hi. Thanks so much. Really love the show. I have a 9-year-old daughter, Katie, who is very interested in space. She has actually been writing a collection of NASA facts for the month of November that have been broadcast on a local radio show in our area.

And a question that she has, what’s the best way for an interested young woman to make her way to space? What’s the best path of study and research if that’s a direction she chooses to go? Thank you.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Yeah. Thanks for the question. You know, find a path in science, engineering, or math that really fascinates you, that ideally you’ve got some passion about it because that’ll bring out your best. But at the same time, look at areas– any areas in science or math that you’re not so strong at. And instead of just chalking those off and walking away, think of them as muscles that you just haven’t developed yet.

So I always lived by the motto build on my strengths and shore up my weaknesses. I think if you do that and center your studies in the scientific and engineering fields, and then aspire to excellence in everything that you do– your best– that’s the single recipe that I know of that’s got a chance of getting you there.

IRA FLATOW: What’s your reaction to being a role model for so many kids or so many people who want to be scientists? Is it a burden, or you feel it comes with the territory?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: It definitely comes with the territory. And I actually consider it mainly a privilege. The astronaut title, the nice blue flight suit seems to open young– in particular, young people’s hearts and minds. They’re hungry for inspiring stories. They’re dreaming of things they might do.

And so we get, I get this extraordinary opportunity to offer what stories I’ve got, what maybe little glimmers or nuggets of insight I’ve got that maybe one of them can take it to heart and use to shape their own path. So I think it’s a tremendous privilege.

IRA FLATOW: I don’t want to forget your role as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator. Are you concerned with the state of the oceans and what climate change is doing to them?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: I am very concerned about the state of the oceans, both from a climate change point of view and a land based pollution point of view. The issue of plastics in the ocean is real. It’s serious. It’s getting into human food chains, but it’s already very systemically in the oceanic food chain. And we at the end of the day, all the humans walking around on this planet, we depend critically on the oceanic food chain, not just when we want to go out to a seafood restaurant, but actually for the life support system of our planet, the very oxygen that we breathe. So we should all be very concerned about the health of the oceans.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you very much for taking time with us today, Dr. Sullivan. And good luck on the book. It’s called Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Invention. Very, very nice to read, and something you might think about as a gift this holiday. Thank you, Dr. Sullivan–


IRA FLATOW: — for taking time.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Thank you, Ira. Always love the show, and it’s a delight to be with you.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you.

Copyright © 2019 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producers and Host

About Katie Feather

Katie Feather is a former SciFri producer and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

Explore More

Relearning The Star Stories Of Indigenous Peoples

How the lost constellations of Indigenous North Americans can connect culture, science, and inspire the next generation of scientists.

Read More