Looking Back at Hubble

It's seven months since I last blogged about Hubble

Less than five weeks after my last post (from the September press conference announcing the results of the mission), our film was broadcast and my work on the project drew to a close.

For scientists and humans everywhere who want to see what's out there, it has been the beginning of a new age, driven by a reborn Hubble that's many times more powerful than it ever was before. In just a few months of operation, the rejuvenated telescope has set new records in long-distance observations. 

And since distance equals time in astronomy, Hubble seeing farther away into space means we're also seeing closer to the beginning of the universe.  Hubble has now captured images of the earliest and most distant galaxies ever seen, groups of stars that were burning 600 to 800 million years after the Big Bang.

For astronomers who study the history of the universe, this early period is considered the dark ages, a time that we know little about - but Hubble is beginning to change that.  The telescope is revealing some of the earliest galaxies to form after the Big Bang, and scientists are finding them quite different from what they're used to seeing.  These baby galaxies are smaller, and shaped differently; rather than ellipticals and spirals, they appear irregular and disheveled. Their light is also bluer -- consistent with what would be expected from the earliest stars ever born.


Much of these revelations are a result of stunning imagery coming back from the Wide Field Camera 3 - the very camera that almost never got installed because of a stuck bolt on spacewalk #1.  

That fact alone reminds me in a vivid way how all this exciting science about the dawn of the universe would not be happening if it weren't for those seven astronauts who went to Hubble, and especially the four spacewalkers who actually had their hands on the telescope.  All the grand scientific theory that will come from the new Hubble is rooted in the ability of a guy with his hands on a wrench to free a stuck bolt.

As a flood of new science starts being unleashed by Hubble, for the astronomers it truly is a new telescope and a new beginning. For me, though, it's ironically a bittersweet experience - emotionally, it feels as much like an ending as a beginning.

In about two years, covering the mission, I did 27 film shoots; I was away from home over 100 days, and on a plane about every other week. I traveled incessantly to Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, and Johnson Space Center in Houston. I got to know the directions from the airports by heart; I even started to become familiar with the faces behind the rental car counters.

Spending so much time with the engineers and astronauts, I started to use their acronyms in my own speech, and in my notes to myself. My life became focused around this mission, and I really, truly felt like I was somehow "part of the team." Their mission was fixing Hubble; my mission was telling their story, so the public could see the things I saw as I watched them work so hard for so long.

I'll never forget watching the launch; I was amazed at how moving the experience was. I now understand that, as impressive as a shuttle launch is (and I wish everyone could see one in person - they are impressive!), it was knowing the people onboard as well as I did that made it so moving. Feeling all that enormous power made the fragility of the shuttle terribly apparent. The launch was so emotional for me because I was afraid of what could happen to the people inside that thing if anything went wrong - and what could happen to their dream if it did.

Once they had restored Hubble and landed safely, they had succeeded at their mission; now I felt I was on the spot - the film had better succeed as well as they did.

Our broadcast was in October, and even now, I'm still too close to it to know how well we captured the essence of that mission. But I have gotten some wonderful feedback from viewers and participants alike. The whole experience was something I'll always remember and cherish.

Just a few weeks ago, one of the Goddard engineers, Ed Rezac, wrote me a wonderful note. He was traveling to do a presentation about the mission, and had some of the Hubble spacewalkers' tools with him. Bringing the tools through airport security, one of the TSA inspectors asked him to unwrap an item. When he did, the inspector recognized it as the Fastener Capture Plate John Grunsfeld used while repairing the Advanced Camera for Surveys (remember all the little screws?).

Amazed at the man's response, Ed asked him how he knew this. His answer: "I watch Nova!"

It's a little thing - but that means a lot to me.

- Rush

User Comments:

Rush,Thanks so much for being so eloquent.
This is a story that needs to get told again and again. What they did was remarkable - and to think that there will be no more missions. makes me want to cry.

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