Around NASA, he’s known as “the Hubble Repairman.” And last May, on his third visit to the orbiting space telescope, John Grunsfeld pulled off the repair to end all repairs. Working at zero gravity some 350 miles above the surface of the Earth, the astronaut restored sight to a half-blind Hubble—called the greatest scientific instrument ever invented—and ensured that it will continue to send back the stunning images and mind-boggling data that have transformed our understanding of the universe.
Having just turned 51, Grunsfeld has spent his career championing manned space exploration. At a time when astronaut-led programs are being called into question, ADVENTURE tracked down Grunsfeld at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to learn about his May mission and why going manned matters.
Q. After the Columbia disaster in 2003, NASA announced that there would be no more manned fixes of Hubble. What happened?
A. That was the official line. I got so despondent, I nearly resigned. But instead, I worked behind the scenes, and in the end we got approval to go back to Hubble with astronauts.
Tell us about the mission last May.
The ACS—Advanced Camera for Surveys—had failed. Something like one-half of all the science out of Hubble had come from the ACS. We didn’t have time to build a replacement. And we couldn’t remove it in space—it was too hard to get to. So when I was there, I had to cut into an aluminum panel, unscrew 32 tiny number-four screws, and remove four circuit cards. I couldn’t see all the screws. Some I had to remove by feel, with my space suit gloves on. I practiced for months beforehand. Every night, I’d review the procedure in my head, step by step. You’ve only got so many hours in space. The clock’s ticking.