John Grunsfeld was planning to visit St. Petersburg soon because his nephew, Tony Henner, is graduating from Eckerd College on Sunday.
But something came up, and Grunsfeld will be away — from the planet.
Grunsfeld, a NASA astronaut, will be the lead spacewalker on the space shuttle's last mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, scheduled to launch today. He discussed the mission in two interviews with St. Petersburg Times staff writer Curtis Krueger. This edited version of the conversations begins with Grunsfeld describing repairs he and other astronauts will attempt on two of the Hubble's scientific instruments, in the weightless environment of space.
Isn't there a huge safety factor here? You mentioned sharp objects and a pressurized space suit.
It's huge. We're constantly reminding ourselves, "Okay, this is sharp, don't touch here, keep away from this." And if you listen to the space walks, you'll hear those calls going back and forth. … The power supplies are … very difficult to get to. Because they were never intended to be serviced on orbit, they're behind panels that have hundreds of tiny screws. They're slightly larger than eyeglass screws. … Our task is to remove all of those screws, take a cover plate off and then pull circuit boards out that have very sharp edges and aren't intended to be handled by people in inflated suits with gloves that can tear. … When we take something called the grid cutter out, which has 12 razor blades on the back of it — "Okay, don't touch the back of the grid cutter" — just reminding ourselves. You can't say that enough.
How do you personally deal with the risk that we all know is part of human space flight?
Human space flight is very risky. You climb on top of 4 1/2 million pounds of explosive fuel, and if you don't think that that's a hazardous thing to do, then you probably are in the wrong line of business. We do space flight because we think it's important. … We're curious and we have a drive to explore. That's why we've occupied all the niches on planet Earth and we're kind of filling up the planet. ... Ultimately we'd better leave planet Earth or we're all going to cease to exist. And this is the very leading edge of that. In all of my experience, I feel that Hubble is by far … the most important project that I have worked on. And obviously I think it's worth risking my life for, or I wouldn't be doing it.
As an astronaut who's visited Hubble twice before, could you help us visualize what it's like?
On my first space walk (in 1999) I was on the end of the robotic arm and being taken back to start work on the Hubble and I was just about arm's length away looking up at this beautiful, almost art object that is the Hubble Space Telescope. I was moved almost beyond words. And all I could do was sort of reach out with my index finger and touch it to make sure it was all real. The space environment is so pristine, the blacks are so deep, orbiting this beautiful, blue marbled Earth that we live on. … I just couldn't believe my good fortune to be there and had to reach out and just touch it to make sure. … As we orbit the Earth at the Hubble altitude we go around the Earth about 16 times a day. … That means we get 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets a day. So every 96 minutes or so is a complete circle around the globe.
What do you like to tell schoolchildren about the Hubble?
One of the fascinating things that's happened during the Hubble Space Telescope's lifetime, that Hubble has contributed significantly to is that we've discovered that everything that we see in the universe, everything that Earth is made out of, that we're made out of, the stuff of the universe, matter, only accounts for 4 percent of what we now know to be in the universe. And the other 96 percent, we know very little about. That's a pretty big scientific discovery. And what that means for kids is there's a lot of fun stuff that we still don't know about the universe that's still there to learn.