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.
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