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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Preparing for an Unknown Tomorrow: Astronaut Kathryn Sullivan and the Saving of the HST

This day, let us speak of a new type of hero, one whose life story is not told as a sum of new products invented and foisted upon an already choked world, but rather a preserver, a planner, a person whose job it is to look at a device and determine how to make it last. It is a commonplace that the 21st Century is the clustered haven of disposable technology – where our grandmothers kept the same rotary phone glued to the kitchen wall for four decades, we consider an electronic device to be the epitome of hardiness if it is still mostly functioning after four years. The idea of building a device to be maintainable, of anticipating future problems and building in solution options for the future user, is seemingly impractical in an age of micro-miniaturisation and unprofitable besides, and so we don't often find ourselves telling the stories of great minds in the history of engineering maintainability.

There is one place, however, that still requires people with the unique skill set of rigor, foresight, and ingenuity required to make a device that will stand the test of decades: space. The cost of putting a cutting edge scientific vessel into orbit is so prohibitively high that maintainability and upgradability, far from being nostalgic luxuries, are dire necessities.

There is perhaps no greater example of the value of planned maintenance procedures than the Hubble Space Telescope. The team investigating its maintenance and potential upgrading began pondering the problem in 1984, led by the two astronauts who would be responsible for any extra-vehicular work required to release it from the space shuttle scheduled to launch in August 1986: Bruce McCandless and Kathryn D. Sullivan. What was supposed to be a two year mission to test and develop new tools and procedures for working on the Hubble in the vacuum of space, however, turned into a six year odyssey in which every system of the new instrument was evaluated and adjusted to make it a fully maintainable space apparatus.

Photo by NASA

That journey, a wearying slog through bolt design and portable platform strut placement, would prove its worth when, shortly after launch in 1990, the HST began returning blurred images from space. One of NASA'‘s most triumphant moments, the launching of an expedition in 1993 to correct the Hubble while still in orbit, had its genesis in that slog, and among its many heroes was the woman who was sure of nothing in college so much as that she would never become a scientist.

Kathryn Sullivan was, as a child, a creature of maps and words. She throve on the pull out maps in National Geographic magazines and stashed them beneath her bed in an ever growing pile, and loved plotting courses for the family trips. Those maps suggested far removed lands resounding with the clang of exotic words, and by the age of ten, young Sullivan discovered that she had an ear for picking up foreign languages. Travel, languages, it all seemed to add up to some sort of job in the foreign service, and Sullivan entered college with that objective and no other. She went to her advisor to ask how she could arrange her schedule to fit in Russian amongst the battery of other courses she had planned for herself, only to be informed that she would have to take three science courses as part of her general requirements. She argued strenuously against this clearly unnecessary side-path to her life'‘s work, but no mere individual can stand against the monolith of departmental policy, and so she signed up for courses that seemed easy enough led by well-reputed professors: oceanography and geology.

Thereupon a new world opened. Sullivan discovered that she could experience travel and utilise her flair for foreign language, while at the same time doing interesting new research in far-flung environments that made the workaday bureaucracy of international diplomacy a meager shadow by comparison. Most tellingly for her future career as an astronaut, one of the parts about professional oceanography that captivated her the most was the preparation for a mission. The elaborate marshalling of resources and schedules to meet specific objectives within set material limitations struck her as a stimulating challenge where most see it as a bottomless chore. Getting things right ahead of time, preparing for contingencies, working within resource constraints – these were the factors that made missions succeed, and in cultivating them, she paved her way to the high altar of procedural rigor: NASA.

Kathryn Sullivan and Sally Ride, photo by NASA

In December of 1976, in the midst of completing her PhD work, Sullivan learned from her brother that NASA was assembling a new team, the first in nine years, to service a new fleet of spacecraft, reusable vessels called space shuttles, and were actively recruiting women for the squad. As a multi-lingual 26 year old scientist in good physical condition with experience in the minutiae of mission planning, she seemed a natural candidate, but after dropping her application in the mail, she thought no more of it. Nearly 9000 people applied for the few coveted spots, and it was no use getting her hopes up with her unfinished PhD staring her in the face, demanding her full attention.

As it happened, however, of the 8700 applicants, she was one of the 200 brought in during the summer of 1977 for further testing, and one of only thirty five who made the final cut, joining the team of the self-styled Thirty Five New Guys in February of 1978. Six women were among those thirty five, including laser astronomer Sally Ride Ride would go on to become the first American woman in space (aboard STS-7 in 1983), but Sullivan would earn her own place in the history books on October 11, 1984.

One of the selling points of the space shuttle was that it could act as an orbital repair yard and refueling station for wayward or otherwise misbehaving satellites. Instead of writing off broken satellites as losses, the shuttle would allow teams to collect them and either repair and refuel them on the spot, or recapture them and bring them down to Earth. On October 11, Kathryn Sullivan and David Leestma stepped outside the shuttle and successfully demonstrated the feasibility of refueling a satellite in orbit during a 3.5 hour extravehicular activity (or EVA). With that one step outside her craft, Sullivan became the first American woman ever to perform a spacewalk, and the second woman overall (Svetlana Savitskaya had performed a 3.5 hour spacewalk for the Soviet Union just three months prior).

It was a milestone that brought some gratifying attention, but not the crushing press of scrutiny that Sally Ride experienced after her mission in STS-7, and that suited Sullivan just fine. She was ready to go back into space at the next possible opportunity, and in the closing moments of 1984 she was informed that she would be on the mission that launched NASA'‘s cutting edge space telescope (brought to life over hard-fought decades by NASA chief astronomer Nancy Roman), the Hubble. And not only would she be part of the mission, but one of two people tasked with developing the protocols and tools responsible for dealing with any hiccups in the satellite'‘s launch, and for allowing long-term maintenance down the line.

For most people, the question of, ‘Do you want to spend the next one to two years intensely investigating the shape of universal bolt head to be used in this piece of equipment?’ would elicit a tentative, ‘Hmmm, let me think,’ followed by a spirited leap through the nearest window. For Kathryn Sullivan, the job of evaluating the maintainability of the Hubble Space Telescope and developing the tools and upgrades needed to make it a fully repairable spacecraft represented the intersection of her many talents – a profound attention to detail, an ability to devote intense concentration to minutiae over long periods of time, a gift for imagining mechanically feasible solutions, and the capacity to work as one of a team in spite of her vaunted astronaut status. She and McCandless went through the Hubble, bolt by bolt and system by system, and developed with their support teams uniform standards for fasteners to decrease the number of tools needed to service the telescope, new removable and adjustable platforms that could be operated by the feet, allowing astronauts to place themselves in the correct orientations for dealing with various maintenance issues, and new tools for handling electrical connections without damaging the wires or scraping off small flakes of metal that could damage the telescopes electronics.

They had accomplished much on the eve of the mission‘s scheduled 1986 launch, and many of their tools (particularly the adjustable foot platform) would become NASA standards in the years to come, but many systems were too centrally located to upgrade for maintainability, and so had to be left as is in preparation for the immanent mission. The Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986, however, put all future shuttle missions on indefinite hold. NASA was stunned at the loss, and Sullivan put her grief into working with the widows of the Challenger crew to create an educational initiative in the memory of their lost family members.

There was no true way forward, however, except by pressing on with the work at hand. The launch delay for the Hubble meant that it could be thoroughly upgraded so that virtually all of its components could be exchanged and repaired in orbit. Space shuttles resumed their missions in 1988, but the Hubble was a comparatively low priority next to more lucrative commercial and military contracts, and so it wasn't until 1990 that STS-31 took off with the HST in its cargo hold. Once in orbit, the deployment of the Hubble began. The first solar array unfurled flawlessly, but the second appeared to be stuck and unable to fully extend. Sullivan and McCandless dashed for their spacesuits and began the four hour wait in the airlock to wash the Nitrogen out of their blood in case they were needed to exit the shuttle and attend to the malfunctioning array. Time was at a premium, between the unusual amount of fuel exhausted to get the Hubble to a higher orbit and the need for the solar panels to open to power the telescope’s electronics before the batteries died out.

Huddled in a white room with no view to the outside, hindered by a biochemical process that could not be rushed, Sullivan ran through every step she needed to take to fix the telescope. She had been over every system on that instrument over the course of the past six years, knew where she'‘d need to place her footholds, and what tools she'‘d need, as soon as her blood cleared itself of treacherous Nitrogen.

Then, suddenly, all was well.

The team on the ground came up with a software fix they beamed up to the HST, the solar array unfurled, and the Hubble was deployed while Sullivan remained in her white room, unable to watch the launching of the satellite she had come to think of in many ways as her own.

Hubble had launched, and on April 29, 1990, Sullivan returned to Earth. With the first images beamed back from the HST, however, NASA saw that something was deadly wrong, a microscopic fault in the Hubble'‘s mirrors was resulting in hazy images. Ridiculed mercilessly on late night television for a production fault less than a fiftieth the thickness of a human hair, NASA needed to repair the Hubble to save face. The last half decade had seen the loss of the Challenger, it could not see the complete failure of the HST as well. Thanks to Sullivan, McCandless, and their maintenance procedures team, however, the crew that flew to the Hubble in 1993 would find everything in place, with easy access to all critical systems, to perform a flawless repair that would see the Hubble serve for the next two and a half decades as the globe'‘s pre-eminent astronomical instrument.

Sullivan, however, was not part of that repair mission, and soon thereafter she began splitting her time between her responsibilities as an astronaut (she would go to space again in 1992 aboard STS-45), and a new position at the Navy Reserve which allowed her to reconnect with the oceanographic work that was calling to her anew after a decade of being consumed by the problems of space and space exploration. In May of 1993 she was appointed Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and retired from her work as NASA. In 2013 she was appointed by President Obama to serve as NOAA'‘s Administrator and also as an Under-Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere after a decade spent developing initiatives to improve science education in the United States.

Photo by NOAA

While Sullivan settled down to life on Earth and the massive responsibilities of measuring and protecting its limited resources, the Hubble went on to a life of its own. Like Theseus'‘s ship, over the years it had nearly every component traded out and upgraded at one point or another, new experiments swapped in while old ones were discarded, until all that remained of the original telescope was a casing and some mirrors. Very little of that would have been possible with the instrument Sullivan first beheld in 1984, with its inaccessible connections, unlabelled components, and tucked away bolts. In the face of engineers who insisted that advances in maintainability could not be made, or were not important enough to be made, Sullivan and McCandless relentlessly pursued a better way forward, and produced an instrument that flawlessly served the needs of a full generation of astronomers. Sullivan would have been a hero if she had never laid eyes on the Hubble, but the concentrated work she did over a half decade to do the job she had been given as thoroughly as it could be done elevates her to something beyond that title. She was no mere hero – she was that greater, rarer thing – a damn fine engineer.


Kathryn Sullivan released her memoir, Handprints on Hubble, in 2020, and as an inside view into the technical aspects of mission preparation, and in particular in the long history of evolving the Hubble from a telescope that would be brought down to Earth for servicing from time to time into a fully in-orbit repairable vessel, it is without parallel.

If you'd like to read more about women astronomers like this one, check out my History of Women in Astronomy and Space Exploration, which you can order from Amazon, or from Pen and Sword US or UK.


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