A blast of another kind

Hubble crew taps into astronaut humor - much to crowd's delight - during customary visit to Baltimore

May 10, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,sun reporter

The seven astronauts picked to fly the final mission to the Hubble Space Telescope next year got a rousing welcome yesterday as they made the traditional courtesy call on the folks in Baltimore whose jobs may hang on how well the crew does its work.

The crew of Servicing Mission 4 arrived to applause and cheers from a crowd that crammed the auditorium at the Space Telescope Science Institute. They introduced themselves, showed some training films they brought along from Houston.

They also brought along their comedy act.

OK, so it was astronaut humor. Their audience was filled with astronomers and engineers, and their kids. They ate it up.

What do you do if you get an itch after you don your spacesuit? someone asked.

"You do a lot of scratching before you get in the suit," Michael J. Massimino, a mission specialist, replied to a gale of laughter.

He also confided that NASA's helmets have a handy "nose pad" they can rub against to soothe an itch. Itches elsewhere have to wait.

There was also the inevitable kid question: What do you do if you have to go to the bathroom during a 6 1/2 -hour spacewalk?

"You just hold it," replied Andrew J. Feustel, another mission specialist. More laughter. But he meant it.

Despite the lengthy confinement, and the 32 ounces of drinking water available in the suit, the air circulating in the spacesuits is so dry and dehydrating, he said, that "most of us don't have any urge to go to the bathroom."

Visits by the astronauts assigned to Hubble servicing missions have become a ritual. Yesterday's came after the crew spent three days training with instruments and telescope mockups at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. It ended with refreshments and a group photo in front of the institute on San Martin Drive near the Johns Hopkins University.

The repair crews also customarily pay a return visit after a flight, and all Hubble hands gather to watch the astronauts' "home movies."

"Everybody's hopes are really riding on this mission, so you like to see these people come and talk to the people who have been working so hard on it these last few years," said Knox Long, 58, an astronomer at the institute since Hubble launched in 1990 with a focusing problem. He splits his time between doing science on Hubble and helping with the development of the James Webb Space Telescope, due for launch as early as 2013.

"This mission is going to make Hubble better than it ever was before," he said.

For Massimino, who grew up under light-polluted skies near New York City -"When I looked up, I didn't see anything" - the assignment is very special.

"Hubble is arguably the greatest science instrument ever made," he said. The opportunity to lift the hood, repair and upgrade it for astronomers around the world is a special privilege.

It's also a coveted assignment. The telescope orbits 100 miles higher than the International Space Station, providing an astonishing view. The work involves multiple spacewalks - five on this mission. Each is a brass ring for ambitious astronauts.

Servicing Mission 4 actually will be the fifth servicing mission to Hubble. (It follows missions 1, 2, 3a and 3b.)

It was announced last Halloween by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. He reversed a decision by his predecessor, Sean O'Keefe, to cancel the mission because of safety concerns raised during the investigation into the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew during re-entry in February 2003.

Griffin said flatly that this mission - currently scheduled for September 2008 - will be the last to Hubble.

All other shuttle flights before the fleet is retired in 2010 will be construction missions to the International Space Station.

He said NASA must have a second shuttle waiting - fueled and crewed - ready to launch on a rescue mission should Atlantis sustain damage during ascent that would prevent its safe return to Earth.

Scott D. Altman, the mission commander, said yesterday that his crew will conduct a thorough video inspection of their ship after launch. They have started to work out the logistics of a dual-shuttle rendezvous in orbit, and the transfer of spacesuits and astronauts from a crippled shuttle to the rescue craft.

"We have a high degree of confidence we can actually do it," he said.

For now, the crew and support teams at Goddard and the Johnson Space Center in Houston continue to develop and test tools, and choreograph repairs and upgrades.

Hubble is to receive two new scientific instruments - the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and the Wide Field Camera 3, which will take over from the telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys, which broke down in January.

The repair crew will also replace failing gyroscopes and attempt a repair of Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, idled since 2004 by an electrical failure.

The hardest part about the grueling schedule of spacewalks and repairs, mission specialist and space rookie Michael T. Good told the crowd at the institute, is "staying rested and just focused and on top of your game. It's not a sprint. We work together as a team and make sure we get it all done."

frank.roylance@baltsun.com

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