John Grunsfeld ’80 was sitting in an astronomical meeting in Atlanta in January of 2004 when he got a message to come back to headquarters in Washington to talk about the Hubble Space Telescope.
To say that he was excited would be an understatement. As an astronaut, Grunsfeld had twice journeyed to space to make repairs on humanity’s most vaunted eye on the cosmos, experiences he had described to a high-level panel pondering Hubble’s fate only a few months before as the most meaningful in his life. He was looking forward to leading the third and final servicing mission, which had been delayed by the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew the year before.
Thinking that the mission was now being scheduled, Grunsfeld raced to Washington, only to learn that Sean O’Keefe, NASA’s administrator, had canceled it on the ground that it was too risky. Wearing his other hat as NASA’s chief scientist, Grunsfeld now had the job of telling the world that the space agency was basically abandoning its greatest scientific instrument at the same time that it was laying plans for the even riskier and more expensive effort to return humans to the Moon.
He said he felt as if he had been hit by a two-by-four.
“Being an astronaut, there are not a lot of things that have really shocked me in my life,” Grunsfeld said in a recent interview. But, he added, “I don’t think anybody could ever prepare themselves for, you know, trying to bury something that they have said, ‘Hey, this is worth risking my life for.’”
He went home that January night and wondered whether he should resign.
Five years later, Grunsfeld reported for work at an 11 million-gallon indoor pool near the Johnson Space Center in his long underwear and a red baseball cap bearing an image of Curious George in a spacesuit. The pool’s blue depths contained sunken replicas of the Hubble and the International Space Station. Surrounded by divers and helpers, Grunsfeld squirmed into a 400-pound set of overalls known as a spacesuit. He was preparing to practice for his return to space.
On May 12, he and six other astronauts commanded by Scott Altman are scheduled to ride to the telescope’s rescue one last time aboard the shuttle Atlantis. This will be the fifth and last time astronauts visit Hubble. When the telescope’s batteries and gyros finally run out of juice sometime in the middle of the next decade, NASA plans to send a rocket and drop it into the ocean.
If all goes well in what Grunsfeld described as “brain surgery” in space, Hubble will be left at the apex of its scientific capability.
As chief Hubble repairman for the past 18 years, he has been intertwined with the Hubble telescope physically, as well as intellectually and emotionally.
“He might be the only person on Earth who has observed with Hubble and touched Hubble,” said Bruce Margon, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and former deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute.
Last September, Grunsfeld and his crewmates were two weeks from blasting off for Hubble when a data router failed, shutting down the telescope until a backup could be booted up. The servicing mission was postponed so that NASA could prepare a replacement router, adding another degree of difficulty to an already crowded and high-stakes agenda.
To accommodate installing the new router, mission planners had to cut into the time allotted for the repair and resurrection of Hubble’s main camera, the Advanced Camera for Surveys. That repair was originally scheduled over two spacewalks, and now planners are hoping to be able to do it a few hours on one spacewalk.
If it cannot be done, Grunsfeld said grimly, the pictures that have inspired people around the world, pinpointed planets around other stars and helped investigate the fate of a cosmos dominated by dark energy will be lost.
If anybody is up to the challenge, it seems to be Grunsfeld, who will be making his fifth trip to space.
Michael Turner, a cosmologist and former colleague at the University of Chicago, described Grunsfeld’s career as “Mr. Smith goes to space.” He said: “Everything turns to magic even when things go bad. In the end it gets righted, and he gets to lead the team.”
Grunsfeld’s whole life has led to Hubble. Born in Chicago in 1958 into a family of architects — his grandfather designed the Adler Planetarium — Grunsfeld said he yearned from age 6 to be an astronaut. Science soon beckoned as an alternative. By the time he reached college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his interests were centered on physics and cosmology. To make some money as an undergraduate, he took a job for $4 an hour on the graveyard shift in the control room for a small satellite, known as Sas-3, which was observing X-rays. Sometimes he took his dates there.
The job led to a year in Tokyo, where Grunsfeld lived in a Zen monastery, meditating in the morning, and teaching and working with an X-ray astronomer, Minoru Oda, at the University of Tokyo in the afternoon. When he came home early one day and found the monks playing baseball, a spell was broken.
Grunsfeld returned to Chicago to earn a doctorate conducting cosmic ray research at the University of Chicago. Along the way he married a woman he had known in high school, Carol Schiff. They now have two children, and she is an accountant at the Johnson Space Center.
Grunsfeld then took a job at the California Institute of Technology, and he and his wife both learned to fly.
When NASA invited Grunsfeld to an interview in 1991, Grunsfeld flew his own plane to Houston.
On his first spaceflight, a 16-day mission in 1995 tending a suite of small telescopes, Grunsfeld did not want to come down. “I had this real feeling of peace, you know, that I never had here on planet Earth.”
Grunsfeld went up again on a 10-day mission to the Mir space station, in 1997.
Then, he said, “I got lucky and got assigned to Hubble.”