Final Thoughts

Here are my notes from Monday

Following Sunday's landing, we catch a late afternoon flight out of Orlando; by the time I finally walk in my door back in Maine, it's 1am.  I've been on the road for 17 days.

Monday morning I attend the Memorial Day parade in my little town, and am overwhelmed with culture shock.  I chat with my neighbor, who makes his living as a logger.  He's an extremely intelligent guy, but he's not had much opportunity to travel in his life.  He's pretty skeptical about the space program, doesn't understand why we send people into space, or what they do once there.  And he's not real supportive of continuing it.

In that respect, he's probably far more typical a citizen than I am.

After the parade, sharing coffee and conversation in the general store of a small rural town, I think about what America has done in space, what we're about to do, and what it all means.

The shuttle is about to be retired; there are only eight flights left.  I used to think the shuttle was boring; true space adventure, I felt, ended with the last Apollo flight to the Moon in 1972.  Apollo went somewhere, explored an unknown place; the shuttle only goes around and around in earth orbit.

I was excited when NASA was given a new mandate in 2004, the Vision for Space Exploration (a plan to return to the Moon and eventually go to Mars).  I believe in exploring space; watching my first shuttle launch, I was moved - witnessing all that awesome power, I felt proud of what humans can do when we put our minds to it.

After following this mission so closely for so long, I've learned a lot more about the shuttle's capabilities.  It has flaws, and will never be completely safe - but it's really an incredible machine.  And I'm not sure any rocket can ever be made completely safe.

The fact is, when the shuttle is retired, the world will lose the ability to do the kinds of things that were just done on Hubble.  As currently designed, America's next generation space vehicle will not have a giant robotic arm, or a huge cargo bay, or even an airlock to do spacewalks.

No spacewalks???

This Hubble mission has dramatically raised the bar, establishing a new benchmark for what humans can do with their hands working in the vacuum of space.  Even Hubble's designers - who intended it to be serviced by astronauts on spacewalks - never dreamed that the kinds of things that happened last week could ever be possible.

And now, just as we reach an apex in our capacity to use fine motor skills out in space, doing delicate and complicated things with our hands (isn't that one measure of what makes us human?) -- we're about to turn our backs on it.

When this mission was canceled after the Columbia accident, some of the Hubble team began working on a plan to build a robot to service Hubble.  And maybe a robot could have done some of what astronauts just did.

But a robot couldn't have replaced Mike Massimino on spacewalk #4.  When the handrail on STIS (the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph) wouldn't budge, Mike did what every shadetree mechanic or weekend project person in the world has done one time or another - he yanked on it until it broke off.  Then, and only then, could the repair of the multi-million dollar instrument proceed.

What I've learned in the past two years is that the "shuttle program" that is about to end isn't just a vehicle - it's a body of knowledge and expertise contained in the brains of thousands of people.  And I wonder: with the end of the shuttle, what will happen to that knowledge, and to those people?

In 1972 when Apollo ended, unused Moon rockets that had already been built and paid for were left to rust.  People that, collectively, knew how to send humans to the Moon, moved on or retired. 

Fast forward thirty years: now, as NASA plans a return to the Moon, some of the engineers are turning to retired Apollo veterans to pick their brains, to learn why they did things the way they did.  The pity is, many of Apollo's brilliant managers and engineers are now gone forever.

It strikes me as a little sad.  I think the American spirit is a restless one, and while I love our energy when we're inspired, I do lament what often seems to be our short national attention span.

Hubble's images will live on; that is certain.  And it seems equally certain that with the telescope's new capabilities, there's much more exciting science still to come. 

But working on this film has taught me that there's more to Hubble than its images and the science that results from them - there's the people who refused to let Hubble die, and so invented new tools, techniques, and possibilities in order to save it.

I worry what will happen to this incredible Hubble team, some of whom I've gotten to know, now that there will be no more manned servicing missions.  I wonder what will happen to the remarkable expertise they've acquired, especially on this mission.

And I wonder if, twenty or thirty years from now, NASA will be trying to locate these folks, now retired, to try and re-learn some of what they know after accomplishing such amazing things on last week's spacewalks. 

I hope that the knowledge and wisdom this team has acquired will not slowly be forgotten, and that decades from now, a new generation of engineers and astronauts will not have to re-learn what has been lost in the interim.

Time will tell...

- Rush

Landing Day

Here's the last day, Sunday, May 24, when they landed.  I will follow with one more set of final thoughts.

6am - the sky has large patches of blue; I begin to feel some optimism that they might actually land today.

We follow our usual routine, going through security and driving to the press site.  I'm not the only optimist; everyone seems buoyed by the improved weather, although there are still some clouds and thundershowers offshore.

The word is, one way or another, they're determined to land today.  The shuttle has one more day of supplies, so tomorrow could be an option, but they want to keep it as a last resort emergency day, in case they discover a problem as they're starting the landing prep.

The other possible landing site for Atlantis is Edwards Air Force base in California, the famous dry lakebed that was the setting for much of Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff.  Edwards is nearly ideal - it's got miles and miles of nothing, incredibly long runways, and usually excellent weather.

But NASA really would prefer to land at Cape Canaveral, for one simple reason: transporting the shuttle back here from Edwards is a real bear.  It costs about $1.8 million, and it's pretty dangerous to boot.

To transport the shuttle, they strap it on top of a special 747.  Because the shuttle's exterior is so vulnerable to impacts, they won't fly through rain or weather - that could damage the shuttle's surfaces.  Nor can they fly too fast either, also for fear of damaging the shuttle.

So they fly slow and low - below 10,000 feet, where the air is thickest.  Between all the weight they're carrying and the air resistance, they burn through fuel fast.  So they have to stop frequently; they end up doing a series of short hops from one military air base to another.  It takes about a week to fly the shuttle from the West Coast to Florida.

So it's pretty clear why they prefer to land here.  That's why they've tried three days in a row - despite picture perfect weather at Edwards.

By now, on our third day of waiting, our crew is running out of ways to pass the time.  Our sound man tells me a "producer joke:"  Q: How can you tell if a producer is lying?  A: When his lips are moving.

It occurs to me to counter with a "sound man" joke:  Q: How tall is the average sound man?  A:  I don't know, I've never seen one standing up.  (they always sit down on the job, get it?)  But since our sound man today is not only a nice guy, but also happens to be rather short, I refrain.

Instead, I answer with my personal favorite producer joke.  Q:  How many producers does it take to change a light bulb?  A:  I'm really not sure - what do you think?  I like this one because it points up one of the parts of the job that I think is hardest: maintaining objectivity or perspective.  Even though I do tend to have strong opinions, I'll often feel unsure because I'm just too close to a film...

Without warning, an announcement begins and our levity abruptly ceases.  Although the sky looks mostly blue, there are still some storm clouds on the edge of the general landing zone (a circle 30 miles in diameter centered on the runway).   The Weather Officer says the weather here is "too dynamic," meaning it changes often and fast.  Though it's good now, there's no guarantee what it will be like an hour from now.

Therefore, they're going to land at Edwards. 

A collective groan passes through the crowd.  After camping out here for three days, it's definitely a letdown.  A third of the crowd starts to slowly collect their stuff and drift out to their cars; the rest of us wait to watch the Edwards landing on TV.

I remind myself that the astronauts are kept pretty sequestered once they get back to earth; we'd be lucky to get a statement from them, or a short Q&A, but no real one-on-one interviews would be allowed anyway.

An hour later, we watch a beautiful touch down on TV.

They're back, and they're safe.  I'm relieved.

After spending two years filming them practice and prepare, it had started to feel like the actual flight might never happen.  And now, over these past two whirlwind weeks, it has.

I can't believe it's over.

We head for the airport and begin our own journey back home.  I've learned an enormous amount these past two weeks, and changed some long held opinions about the space program.  Tomorrow I'll jot down some final thoughts.

Saturday Part 2

They continue to take it right up to the last minute before making their decision.

A little while before Scooter would fire the engines to start their descent - if they were going to land - we heard a command from Mission Control to the astronauts: "begin loading."

I make some inquiries, and it turns out that this refers to "fluid loading" - essentially drinking a bunch of water.  Apparently, astronauts in space tend to get dehydrated.  Returning to earth after nearly two weeks without gravity is tough on their bodies, and dehydration makes it worse.  Some returning astronauts have needed an IV to restore fluids before they can walk steadily out of the shuttle.

To counteract this, they must drink fluids right before they come down - a lot of fluids.  Sixty-four ounces of liquid, which I calculate is just slight less than an entire six-pack.

Now, approaching the second landing opportunity of this morning, I again hear the command: "Atlantis, begin loading."

Wow - they each drank nearly six 12-ounce glasses of water roughly an hour ago, and now they have to do it again.

While we wait, we chat with the Weather Officer, who explains various video displays they have here.  One system allows them to measure electrical conditions in nearby clouds, and actually predict lightning before it comes.

Finally, 90 minutes or so after the first postponement, we again hear the announcement: today's landing has been waved off due to weather; they will try again tomorrow morning.  There are audible groans at the press site.

I'm disappointed too, but I'm thinking it must be worse for the astronauts. The shuttle cabin is barely the size of a minivan - not a lot of room for seven people.  And before reentry, they have a whole long list of prep to do, stowing everything away and getting into their landing suits.  Now all that has to be undone, then redone again tomorrow morning, for the third day in a row.  It must be frustrating (though they do get to spend another day looking out the window).

And -- after all that fluid loading -- I can imagine there must be quite a line at the bathroom...

Saturday Part 1

Again, we assemble at 6:30, go through security, and enter Kennedy Space Center (KSC).  Again the sky is totally overcast; I'm not at all optimistic that they'll land today.

Proceeding from the security checkpoint toward the press site, I suddenly spot the Shuttle Training Aircraft above us and to the left, descending steeply.  Astronaut Steve Lindsay is flying mock shuttle landings in order to assess the conditions that Scooter Altman, Atlantis's commander, will experience if they do end up landing here today.

The Shuttle Training Aircraft is a Gulfstream jet that has been fitted with shuttle-type controls, and modified so as to handle like the shuttle.  Shuttle commanders and pilots (the ones who actually fly the shuttle, as opposed to the "mission specialist" astronauts who do spacewalks but no piloting) use this training airplane to practice landing the shuttle.

Scooter, Atlantis's commander, explained to me that the shuttle comes in 7-times steeper than an airliner.  Watching the training jet make a mock approach, it almost looks like a plane about to crash - it seems to be literally diving toward the ground.

When the shuttle lands, they have some pretty restrictive weather requirements.  They don't want any chance of flying through rain or lightning; rain can actually damage the thermal tiles covering the spacecraft (they're incredibly robust against heat, but very fragile when it comes to physical impacts of any kind).

They even try to avoid clouds or smoke.  After all, when it descends the shuttle is a glider with no engines - it's basically falling like a brick, and the pilot has one chance to land it.  If he's off course or can't see the runway, too bad - there's no going around to try again.  So they want conditions to be excellent.

The other problem is the time delay in between committing to land and the actual landing.  Once they decide to go, they fire their engines for the last time and the shuttle basically starts falling, but it takes over an hour to fall from orbit down to the ground.

That means they have to reliably forecast the weather at the landing site over an hour ahead of time.  Our weather here is lousy, but they tell us Florida has some of the fastest-changing weather in the world, which makes their forecasting even harder.

After an hour and a half of waiting, we get word that the first landing opportunity is waved off.  Looking at the sky, I'm not surprised.  The next opportunity will come on the next orbit around the earth, which takes about 90 minutes.

Everybody here is anxious, even the official NASA people who seem to strive for blandness and complete lack of emotion in every manner of speech, dress, and demeanor.

We'll drink more coffee and wait...

Another Landing Delay

On friday, we meet our camera and sound guys at 6:30am - and things don't look good.  The sky is totally overcast; I can't imagine they'll try to land in this.

By 8:30 we learn that the first opportunity is canceled; an hour later, so is the second.  The forecast doesn't really call for much to change, but nevertheless, they'll try again on Saturday.

I guess it's not so bad for the astronauts; for twelve days every minute of their time has been scheduled, broken down into five-minute increments.  John Grunsfeld, who has flown three previous shuttle missions, has told me that they are so busy in space they literally barely have a moment to look out the window.  Now they've got most of a day for sightseeing

Friends and High Places

Notes from Thursday's shoot.

With the spacewalks done and the shuttle safe to return, I'm dealing with loose ends and getting ready to travel to Florida for the landing, scheduled for tomorrow.

This morning cinematographer Joe Brunette and I left the hotel at 5 to go shoot the sunrise over Johnson Space Center.  Since the Goddard engineers on the Hubble repair team generally came on shift at 4am each day, for several days we've gotten up in the middle of the night to film them going to work.

Now we need establishing shots - bigger panoramas we can use to signify the passage of time in the film.  And nothing says "day over" or "new day begins" like a sunset or sunrise.

The problem is, Houston is as flat as a pancake, and we need a high vantage point.  We've spotted the perfect spot - the back yard of a Houston Fire Dept station next to NASA.  Their roof would be even better, perfect really, but we can't imagine they'd give us permission to go up there.

The station seems deserted; we walk in, calling out "Hello?  Anybody here?" and feeling somewhat like intruders.  Finally two suspicious firemen emerge from a back room with a definite "who the hell are you, and what are you doing in our house?" look.  "Can I help you?"

I begin my standard spiel: this is who we are, we're making a film about the Hubble mission for PBS, it's part of the series "Nova," we need to shoot the sunrise, we just want to place our camera here, we won't disrupt your routine or damage your property, I'll be happy to sign something, blah, blah, blah -- when fireman Rudy interrupts me: "I love Nova - how 'bout using our roof?"

Joe and I exchange glances; this is more than we had dared hope for.

Rudy clears the path to a ladder mounted on the cinderblock wall; it's straight vertical, two stories high, and frankly a nerve wracking climb, especially carrying camera and tripod, leaving only one hand to hold on with.  As we climb, I'm thinking whoever is the Houston FD liability lawyer would be horrified if he could see this -- but so what?  All we care about is getting our shot, and Rudy is totally on our side.

The man is a gem.  He not only gets us on the roof, he starts blocking our shots for us, suggesting angles, and scheduling when we need to arrive the next morning and evening.  He should be a production manager.  Plus, he insists on making bacon, eggs, pancakes and coffee for us.  I regretfully decline, having to go back to the hotel and pack.  Rudy seems downright insulted when I pass on his breakfast offer, but is mollified when I settle for a Styrofoam cup of coffee (the firemen have one size -- humongous).

Joe shoots the sunrise, then dines on the fireman's breakfast, while I pack and check out.  He'll be back tonight to shoot the sunset.

Meanwhile, I'm off to Florida.  The landing at Cape Canaveral is scheduled for tomorrow morning.

Wednesday...Part 2

Hi guys;
Landing postponed 2 days in a row -- tomorrow should be it, whether it's here in FL or out at Edwards Air Force base in CA will be decided at the very last moment.

I have gotten somewhat caught up on more blog posts. 

Wednesday 5/20 -- 2
Late in the day we got the word that the team scrutinizing video of the shuttle has pronounced it free of damage - so it's safe to return.

The whole subject of danger on this mission is a strange one.  Whenever I ask the astronauts about danger, I notice I speak in general terms, whereas they answer me in the language of mathematics and probability.  I tend to think of the danger as very dramatic and a big deal; they boil it down to numbers.  And they never say "danger" - they always call it "risk."

They trust experts to calculate the odds of disaster, which are expressed in a ratio like 1:200, or 1:160 (I have no idea how they arrive at these numbers).  Back in February, two satellites collided in orbit, greatly increasing increasing the amount of space debris.  That event also increased the chances of the shuttle getting destroyed during the Hubble repair mission.

Shortly after the satellite collision, Greg Johnson ("Ray Jay") the pilot, told me that the experts had recalculated the risk of "loss of crew and vehicle" due to getting hit by debris; the latest estimate was something like 1 in 160.  I was surprised; that sounded uncomfortably dangerous to me.

But to him, it was a number.  And mission planners were taking steps to change the number to make it more acceptable (I'm told they prefer to keep the risk around 1:200).  This is what they call "risk management" or "mitigating" the risk.

That's where yesterday's maneuver, the change to an elliptical-shaped orbit came from.  By spending half their time at a lower altitude (an area with a lower probability of getting hit), they can average the higher and lower risk numbers, and improve their overall risk number.

So because the numbers have changed, the mission's suddenly not as dangerous as it was before? I get it, I suppose, but this is just not a way of thinking that I'm used to.

If I were told the chances of my car blowing up the next time I turn the key are 1 in 160 - and then later I'm told they've recalculated and the number is actually 1 in 200 - I wouldn't feel that much better about starting the car tomorrow morning.  I don't really care if it's 1:160 or 1:200 - both seem too high.

I guess regardless of the numbers, I instinctively imagine what it would feel like to be that unlucky "1" in the equation.

I understand the way these people look at the danger, and they're not foolhardy.  They do all they can to turn "risk" into "science;" like a savvy player in Vegas, they study and try to manipulate probability.  And it does make sense to me intellectually when they explain it.  But it still doesn't resonate in my gut.

Maybe I'm just too much of a humanities major.

Shifting Gears

Hi guys;
Well, the weather forced a postponement of today's landing.  It doesn't look too good for tomorrow either; they may end up landing at Edwards Air Force base in CA.

The good part was that it has given me some time to do more writing. Here are my thoughts from Wednesday.

With all the spacewalks complete and 100% successful, and Hubble once again released into its own orbit, there's a sense of the mission starting to wind down.  And for the Goddard engineers and many of the Hubble repair team on the ground it is.  But they're just part of an even larger team, which deals with launching, flying, and landing the shuttle.  Repairs over, that team is now shifting gears; the focus now changes to getting their seven friends in space safely back on the ground.

It's not getting much attention, but at this very moment the rescue shuttle Endeavour is on the launch pad in Cape Canaveral just days away from being ready to launch.  It normally takes weeks and a cast of thousands to get a shuttle prepped and off the ground, so to save time the rescue mission has been proceeding as if they're going to go.  We're told they won't cancel Endeavour's countdown until Atlantis has actually fired its engines and started for home.

Obstacles to the safe return of Atlantis include having damage to their thermal protection system, which would make them vulnerable to the intense heat as they reenter the atmosphere (the kind of problem that doomed Columbia).  Or, being hit while on orbit by a micro meteoroid going faster than a bullet.

To avoid these scenarios, they do two things: try to get out of the way of micro-meteoroid space debris, and inspect their thermal protection system with cameras and lasers.

To get out of the way, after releasing the telescope, Commander Scooter Altman did an engine burn to change the shuttle's orbit.  Atlantis had been in a circular orbit over 3 00 miles high - 100 miles higher than where the International Space Station is and where shuttles usually fly.  Apparently the amount of space debris whizzing around is greater at higher altitudes, so when you're higher you're more likely to get hit.  As soon as they released Hubble, mission managers wanted to get them the heck out of there.

In their new elliptical orbit, they're now in a path roughly 300 miles by 150 miles.  That reduces by a sizeable portion the amount of time each orbit spends crossing through the higher, more dangerous zone.

With their orbit lowered, now they'll start using the robotic arm to do inspections of their thermal protection surfaces, the heat-resistant tiles and reinforced carbon edges of the wings.  Megan already did this on the first/second day to check for damage that might have occurred on the way up during the launch.

But they've been up there in the danger zone for nine days, and something could have hit in the meantime, so they do another set of inspections to look for any new damage just before coming home.  Megan does the bulk of the arm operations, but Scooter and Mike Massimino sometimes take turns as well.

There's a team on the ground that scrutinizes the video they send down (which they all refer to as "the data").  I think they're called the DAT (Damage Assessment Team?  Or is it Debris Assessment Team?  It's really hard to keep the acronyms straight around here).  It will take them another day or so to produce their report.

If any damage is found, there's a series of steps they would take.  First, closer inspections of the suspicious area.  Then, depending on what they see, possibly an emergency spacewalk to try and repair the damage.  (One of the things we filmed last summer was the astronauts taking a class on how to repair damaged tiles or reinforced carbon panels on the wings.)  And at Cape Canaveral the rescue mission would probably go into high gear because if it were needed, time would be of the essence.

But all that is hypothetical and in the future.  Right now, the spacewalkers are resting and recovering.  The whole crew is doing a few press conferences from space, and will have a private phone call with President Obama.  Mike Massimino is taping his daily home movie show, and Megan and others are inspecting the skin of their vehicle.

Most likely we'll soon have an uneventful return that will cap off an extremely successful mission - or, if they find damage, we could witness a repair effort or rescue flight, either one of which would be completely unprecedented.

With all the surprises encountered on the spacewalks, most people here feel there's been enough unprecedented stuff on this flight already, thank you.  They're hoping for boring and uneventful.

Hubble Released

Sorry -- I fell behind in my updates these past few days.  My recent evenings have been spent shooting sunsets and nighttime exteriors at NASA, plus some very early morning sunrises.  So I haven't had much writing time since Monday.

I flew to Cape Canaveral today; they're supposed to try and land tomorrow morning.  But the weather here is bad, so they'll probably postpone the landing a day.  If so, I'll try to catch up on my updates over the next couple of days.

Here are my  notes from Tuesday:

This morning Megan McArthur, the only woman on the crew, released Hubble back into its own orbit - the last time humans will ever see it in person.  The astronauts have been joking about who has the honor of being the "last person to touch Hubble."  It seems like it was John Grunsfeld at the end of yesterday's spacewalk - but technically it was actually Megan, since she was operating the robotic arm that released Hubble today.

Throughout our two years of following these folks, every time I've asked her about her worst stress or anxiety, Megan has consistently articulated the same answer: "breaking Hubble."  The robotic arm she operates is huge and powerful, and in her work there is enormous potential for one false move to damage the telescope.

Megan is the one who grabs Hubble when it is floating free in space, and moves it into the shuttle's payload bay and parks it.  During each of the five spacewalks, she has an astronaut riding on the end of the arm, who she has to position close to or even inside the telescope; she often operates within margins measured in inches.  (I'm not exaggerating; throughout the spacewalks, one astronaut is always attached to the arm, strapped into a foot restraint -- the other is the "free floater" - and we frequently hear the one on the arm calling Megan to adjust his position by an inch or two.)

And, when the spacewalks are all done, Megan is the one who will once again grab Hubble, move it out of the payload bay, and gently release it back into space.

Not only that - she's also the one who uses the robotic arm to do most of the inspecting of the shuttle's tiles and surfaces, looking for any possible damage.  That was her job the day after launch, before they rendezvoused with Hubble.  And that will be her job the day after they release Hubble.

So while the four spacewalkers all have a day inside in between their spacewalks (because the experience is so physically draining), Megan is "always on."  Given all this, I think in some ways she must be the hardest working person on the crew.

The actual moment of the release turned out to be an anti-climax though, at least for everyone on the ground.  Because of the shuttle's position at that moment, it was out of touch with Mission Control.  So although the astronauts filmed and photographed the magnificent but bittersweet sight of Hubble slowly drifting a way into the blackness for the last time, no one else on the planet could witness this historic moment - much to the chagrin of a number of the reporters gathered in Houston.

The astronauts will downlink their video later, and bring the tapes home, and eventually we'll all get to see the replay.  But the last sight of Hubble in "real time" was seen by only seven people - the crew of Atlantis.  Since so many people have worked so long on the telescope (some for their entire careers), to be denied that sight was a shame.  However, given how much more the astronauts are personally risking to effect the repairs, I guess they've earned that privileged view.

Wow--an unbelievable finish.

John Grunsfeld and Drew Feustal not only finished everything they were supposed to do today, they also managed to finish the one extra insulation blanket task that had been left over from yesterday (dropped from spacewalk #4 due to lack of time).

As the ultimate Hubble lover, I'm sure Grunsfeld was determined to get it all done. Since he couldn't force managers to let their spacewalk go long, I suspect he just did his absolute best to get everything else done so quickly that in the end they would almost have no choice but to let him add on yesterday's left-over blanket task.

I doubt he'd ever admit to this strategy, but I intend to ask him when we interview him after the flight.

So in the end the mission accomplished 100% of its goals. Tonight, Hubble has two brand-new instruments, two repaired instruments, new batteries, new insulation, new gyros, and a new guidance sensor. All the scientists are saying it's not merely like a new telescope, it's actually much more powerful (20 times, 80 times? estimates vary) than it has ever been.

Obviously the flight is not over. Tuesday Megan will release Hubble back into its own orbit, and it will slowly drift away--the last time ever that humans will lay eyes on the telescope.

Then the shuttle will fire engines to change its orbit into a more elliptical shape (right now they're in a nearly perfect circle over 300 miles up). By getting into an ellipse, from now on they'll spend portions of every orbit at a much lower altitude, which reduces their risk of being hit by micro-meteorites or space debris.

Megan will then spend the next two days inspecting their vehicle for damage that could affect their reentry. In case she finds a problem, the rescue shuttle and crew are still standing by in Florida--it ain't over yet.

Still, all the Goddard engineers I've been following for two years are celebrating tonight. They won't let down their guard completely until the astronauts are home safe, but with the spacewalks done--and 100% successful--their job is over.

It's definitely a bittersweet moment for them, though; many have worked together on Hubble for a decade, even two. One manager, Frank "Cepi" Cepollina has been involved with the Hubble project since the 1970s, before the telescope was even built.

They're all still high from a successful last spacewalk, but at some point soon their team will start to disband forever, and I'm sure they'll feel a letdown. It's the start of what promises to be some magnificent science for Hubble, but it's also the end of an era.