Space telescope's deputy director has been there

Institute's Grunsfeld made 3 repair missions as astronaut

February 22, 2010|By Frank D. Roylance

When he applied for the No. 2 job at the Space Telescope Science Institute, John Grunsfeld hit on a way to stand out from other candidates.

First, he loaded a cover letter and a resume onto a memory stick.

Then he took it with him into space.

The astrophysicist, then on his third mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, waited until the space shuttle's robot arm had grabbed the orbiting observatory before he fired off his note.

"He actually used the words, 'I am holding Hubble hostage until you read my application,' " the institute's director, Matt Mountain, recalled.

Grunsfeld, 51, got the job. The first astronaut to serve as deputy director of the Baltimore-based institute, he will be in charge of education, public outreach and strategic planning for Hubble and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which is due to launch in 2014.

As he settled recently into his new office, still lined with packing boxes, but offering a broad view of the woods and wildlife in Wyman Park, Grunsfeld talked about leaving the astronaut corps after 17 years, and of his hopes for the future of Hubble as the flagship of NASA's Great Observatories.

"It really is a grand scientific adventure," he said. "The kinds of things ... astronomers have discovered using these observatories has advanced our knowledge of the universe by incredible leaps and bounds."

He described the story of Hubble - the crippling mirror flaw discovered soon after launch in 1990, and the clever fix; breakdowns, repairs and upgrades over the years; and all the astonishing images and discoveries - as "more amazing than anybody could have concocted as a novel."

"And the most amazing part of this whole story is that it's not over yet. That last servicing mission was really the beginning of Hubble's next adventure, and we don't know where it will go. ... And it's that excitement about Hubble's future, and about science's future, that made coming here a real easy decision."

The space telescope institute is where Hubble science is organized and managed, and it will do the same for the Webb telescope.

"As an astronomer, I love the operations side just as much as I love the research side," he said. "So this is a perfect storm of opportunities for me."

Grunsfeld plans to do his own research during his time at the institute. He wants to point Hubble at the moon.

"It goes back to being 3 or 4 years old, riding in the car back from my grandmother's house in Chicago," he said. "I would sit there and watch the moon from the car. I've had a longtime fascination with the moon."

For a telescope built to see to the edge of the visible universe, the moon - just 239,000 miles away - is a surprisingly difficult target. That's because the two objects orbit at very different altitudes, angles and speeds - while it takes the moon nearly four weeks to circle the Earth, Hubble completes a circuit every 90 minutes.

The conventional wisdom was that Hubble would have trouble tracking the moon. But it was tried, and it worked. "The folks here, and in particular [the late] Rodger Doxsey and a team worked very hard and we were able to shoot the moon with Hubble, and do it very well," Grunsfeld said. "And the surprising thing is that the moon, while very bright in the optical, is not very bright in the ultraviolet. So it's not too bright for Hubble."

Grunsfeld wanted a target on the lunar surface with real scientific value. But in order to engage the public, and especially school kids, he also sought something named after an astronomer, and easily seen from Earth.

In the end he chose Tycho, a sharply defined crater with a bright spray of ejected rock, all visible from Earth, and easily seen with binoculars and small telescopes. It was named for Tycho Brahe, the 16th-century Danish astronomer whose dogged observations helped Johannes Kepler discover the laws of planetary motion.

"Only" 95 million years old, Tycho is the scar left by one of the most recent big impacts in the moon's 4.5-billion-year history. Dinosaurs could have witnessed the collision.

"It's so young, it's hardly been weathered at all. We'll see pristine material," Grunsfeld said. In ultraviolet wavelengths, and with Hubble's finely detailed resolution, "we'll be able to determine mineral content and the structure of those crater walls."

"This would be a site you'd want to send people ... to study and pick up rocks and bring them home," he said. "Hubble will allow us to do that study from Earth orbit."

Grunsfeld also hopes to develop a school curriculum and perhaps a national observation night to coincide with Hubble's lunar observations. And he's assembled a team of scientists from NASA, the Goddard Space Flight Center, Brown University and Arizona State University to work on the idea with him.

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