Happy Birthday, Hubble!


Today is the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope! I’m already being flooded with all sorts of great Hubble stories and imagery, and you can pretty easily find lots of cool stuff online.

So I want instead to share one of my favorite Hubble stories, which has almost nothing to do with those decades of incredible images and game-changing science. Today, of course, Hubble is considered one of NASA’s signature successes, but when it launched, it was seen as a devastating blunder – just months after returning to flight after Challenger, NASA had put up a $1.5B observatory (that was a lot of money back then) that had a misground mirror and couldn’t focus properly.

Plans began quickly on how astronauts could visit Hubble and repair it (and here I’m obligated to note that Goddard publisheda web feature yesterday that mentions how the foundation of that repair was Skylab – “With Skylab, in-space servicing was born.”) But shuttle missions take time to plan, prepare and execute, and it would be almost three and a half years before the first Hubble servicing mission could be flown.

Three and a half years in which NASA had a flagship space telescope – albeit a broken one – in orbit. Not wanting to let those years go to waste, a temporary stopgap fix was found. They couldn’t do anything on orbit to improve the images yet, but they could do something on the ground; image processing software was developed to compensate, as much as possible, for the mirror flaw, making the images in those early years more useful.

It turns out that if you develop software to improve images, sometimes you can improve multiple types of images with it. To quote a NASA web feature: “When applied to mammograms, software techniques developed to increase the dynamic range and spatial resolution of Hubble’s initially blurry images allowed doctors to spot smaller calcifications than they could before, leading to earlier detection and treatment. The sooner the cancer is found and treated, the better the chances are that a patient will make a full recovery and preserve her quality of life.”

Speaking to the public, I sometimes get asked if this whole space thing we do is worthwhile. And this story is one of my handful of go-to answers to that. If NASA can save lives even when it screws up, much less by being successful, and can revolutionize our understanding of the universe in the process, then, yes, maybe this is a thing worth doing.

“Saving Skylab” Launches Tomorrow


TL;DR – You should watch Hubbell Power Systems’ Saving Skylab documentary, premiering tomorrow.

Long version: There’s a short story I like a lot in Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story about this guy named Cliff Bosch. Skylab has launched, and had its anomaly during ascent, and the micrometeoroid shield and one of the solar arrays are gone, and the other solar array is stuck and won’t deploy, and teams all over NASA are figuring out how to resolve the situation in time to launch the first crew. And some engineers at Marshall working the solar array issue get the idea that what might help is a “limb lopper” like lineman use to cut back tree limbs at a distance. So they call the AB Chance Company in Centralia, Missouri, and end up talking to Cliff Bosch. Long story short, Cliff ends up throwing a bunch of tools in a box and hoping a ride on the head of MacDonnell Douglas’s Aerocommander and coming down to Marshall. Before the end of the day, he’s having to call his wife who doesn’t know he’s gone, telling her he won’t be home that night, and hopping a flight to KSC.

It’s a tiny anecdote, but I love the story of this “ordinary guy” that woke up one morning and randomly helped save a space station.

Well, last year, I was contacted by someone from Hubbell Power Systems, which now owns AB Chance, which is still around, and still makes lineman’s tools. And this story has been part of their corporate mythology for almost half a century, but they didn’t have the NASA side of the story until they stumbled across my book. And now they wanted to make a documentary. So they did.

Selfishly, I love seeing that tiny story brought to life that way. They talked to Chuck Lewis, the Marshall guy that was the interface to Chance – and who it turns out still had the original receipts for the tools and one of the original tool prototypes, after it was given to him by a friend of his who’d taken it home after the Skylab rescue and been using it to cut deer antlers. But they also talked to people I didn’t on the Chance side, so it was neat getting the other side of the story. It’s beautifully shot and edited; they even made me look decent.

Point being, coronavirus has scuttled their original plans to debut it tomorrow at an IEEE power convention, but they’re sticking with the original date – National Lineman Day – with an online debut at 11 am CDT tomorrow. “Saving Skylab” is a free watch, and you can find out more and see the trailer at the website I linked to at the top. I’ve seen an advance screener; it’s about half an hour long and, in my admittedly very biased opinion, well worth it.