Reporting the invasion of must-see NASA TV Best shuttle moments during Hubble repair courtesy of 'color desk'

February 15, 1997|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Watching two astronauts fix a 12-ton space telescope is only a smidgen more entertaining than watching ice melt.

The television picture is often muddy. The silences are long, and the chatter, when there is any, is mostly baffling. Only the obsessed would sit through it while most people are tucked in their beds.

Too bad. Because this time veteran astronaut and spacewalker Story Musgrave is at the "color desk" for the coverage of two of the Discovery astronauts' four planned repair visits to the Hubble Space Telescope. His informed explanations and artful reflections are providing some of the mission's best moments.

On their first spacewalk early yesterday, the crew of Discovery installed two new scientific instruments designed to make Hubble more efficient and to extend its vision deeper into the universe and further back in time.

Early today, they were to replace one of Hubble's three star-tracking sensors and other electronics. Tonight, more electronics and one of three reaction wheels -- flywheels that help turn the telescope -- will be replaced. A fourth and final spacewalk tomorrow night is scheduled for replacement of more balky hardware.

Hubble is to be set free in space Tuesday, and Discovery is due back in Florida on Friday.

NASA is trying harder to give viewers and taxpayers better "color" commentary, said Cindy Buck, a public affairs spokeswoman at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "I don't believe we did it for the last HST [Hubble Space Telescope] mission, but we have been doing it at KSC [Kennedy Space Center] and at Johnson."

Lesson in lingo

Those acronyms are part of the problem. Space types speak in acronyms, and anyone without a NASA decoder ring is left clueless. The Hubble mission media kit alone lists at least 168 of them.

So, taking its lead from sports TV, NASA now assigns one "play-by-play" person and one "color" commentator -- usually an astronaut or a scientist -- to keep viewers clued in and interested.

On Thursday night, Musgrave joined NASA play-by-play man Kyle Herring at the public affairs desk in the Houston control center.

The 61-year-old flier, thinker, writer, student, sky diver and diarist (and veteran of six shuttle flights in his 30 years as an astronaut) watched with Herring and everyone else as the astronauts completed the installation of Hubble's new infrared camera.

Then someone aboard Discovery reminded the spacewalkers to admire the view. They were flying over Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Herring was silent. But Musgrave began recalling his spacewalk on the 1993 Hubble repair mission and the awe he felt at the view from 360 miles over Florida.

That's twice the altitude of most shuttle missions, he said, and "you can see a lot more."

"At the same time we were flying over Florida, we could see a 1,000-mile-long aurora, like a silken curtain, above northern Canada."

Cool.

It's all relative

Hours earlier, viewers watched as astronaut Steven L. Smith -- standing on the end of the shuttle Discovery's robot arm -- carried the 700-pound Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph across the payload bay. It was being stowed for the ride back to Earth. After seven years of data collection, the instrument was being replaced by the updated Space Telescope Imaging Spectrometer.

"Moving a 700-pound object in a zero-G [gravity] environment is exceedingly easy," Musgrave said. In fact, it requires only "fingertip pressure."

He should know. He did the same chore with a similar instrument in 1993. He practiced by having four of his crew mates (adding up to about 700 pounds) grab onto each other while he shoved their floating mass around the shuttle cabin.

"If you wanted to get the same experience here on Earth," he told anyone watching at 1: 20 a.m., "you could take four people on Rollerblades." Have them stand on a smooth surface, clutching each other, and "then move them back and forth."

Insights during timeout

The unexpected gyrations of one of the Hubble telescope's solar arrays delayed the mission's first spacewalk almost 90 minutes. The motion eventually was traced to a blast of air released from the shuttle's air lock.

While controllers worked on the problem, Musgrave offered viewers insights into NASA's attempts to train astronauts for working in weightlessness.

"We have no switch to turn off gravity," he said. So, much of the training takes place in a deep pool.

But Musgrave -- who in his long career has choreographed much of what astronauts do in space -- said water isn't the same as airless space. "If you drop yourself into water, you tend to stay right there," he said. "You're like a very large canoe paddle. If you let go in space, everything is moving."

So, astronauts also train on an frictionless "air floor," a room like a giant air-hockey game. But it still has air and gravity .

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