Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Innovation

  • Published

Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Innovation by Kathryn D. Sullivan. MIT Press, 2019, 304 pp. 

At first glance, a spacewalk (called an extravehicular activity or EVA in the acronym-laden jargon of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA]) seems cool, fun, and—after hundreds of them carried out during the past 55 years—routine. In reality, they are anything but a lark. Space is an exceptionally dangerous and harsh environment; several astronauts and cosmonauts have come much closer to perishing on EVAs than is commonly known. The space suits are actually miniature human-shaped spacecraft with all the complexities that implies. Astronauts find it difficult to work in them, and wearing a space suit can range from uncomfortable to downright painful for the occupant. The fact that EVAs can be done at all is impressive; that they can be done safely while highly exacting work is accomplished is the result of diligent and brilliant engineering.

Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan was a young oceanographer when she was selected by NASA to become an astronaut in 1978. Sullivan, from the first class of astronauts selected after the Apollo program, was one of the first American women included in the famed Thirty-Five New Guys. Part of the book is a memoir by Sullivan of her application, selection, and training to become an astronaut and her shuttle flights. However, it largely describes the efforts of the team to develop an on-orbit maintenance capability for the Hubble Space Telescope, which included Sullivan.

The Hubble Space Telescope has been described as the most productive scientific instrument in history. Sized to fit the cargo bay of the space shuttle orbiter, Hubble is a large optical telescope designed to make astronomical observations unimpeded by Earth’s atmosphere, which can distort and block electromagnetic radiation received from planetary and celestial bodies. Before Hubble, scientific satellites had been launched and would never be touched thereafter, which meant that they could not be maintained, repaired, or upgraded. In contrast, Hubble was designed to be visited periodically by the space shuttle and serviced by astronauts on EVAs. Not only was Hubble intended to be an important astronomical tool, but it was also a flagship mission for the space shuttle, showing the value of a reusable spacecraft with a human crew.

Conceptually, the marriage of the space shuttle and Hubble made sense. Translating from concept to implementation is an enormously challenging project, and that journey is the heart of Sullivan’s book. What parts of Hubble should be serviceable? How should Hubble be designed and built to enable its servicing? What tools are needed? What procedures? How can all of these things be made compatible with the limitations imposed by EVA, including items such as bulky space suit gloves? How can the astronauts use these tools and execute these procedures safely? How can the Hubble’s design, tools, and procedures—all intended to be used in the almost airless microgravity environment of space—be tested and validated on the ground? All of these concerns were uncharted territory in which invention would be needed.

Sullivan does a wonderful job of describing the process of innovation by the Hubble servicing team, which included members from several NASA centers as well as contractors. The reader learns about Sullivan’s role but also meets compelling people like Frank Costa, a Lockheed engineer who managed the Hubble’s electrical system, and Brian Woodworth, who designed the tools that astronauts would use. Sullivan paints a vivid and admiring portrait of each of these people and many more.

We now know in hindsight what the Hubble in-flight maintenance team could not have known in advance: that Hubble was built with a serious flaw in its optical system that was only discovered after launch and prevented it from accomplishing the intended mission. The capabilities developed by the team did not just enable Hubble to have its service life extended. They were required to save Hubble from almost total failure. Additional servicing missions have greatly improved the observational powers of Hubble and keep it operational as it begins its fourth decade in orbit.

Handprints on Hubble is an outstanding book worth reading, both as a way to learn about how high-performance teams innovate and how NASA really carries out the marvelous things that it does.

Kenneth P. Katz



"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."