Saturday, 29 December 2018

Sadness and Celebrations for the Hubble Space Telescope

Nancy Grace Roman in 2017. NASA Goddard Photo.

On prominent display in my office is one part of the Lego Women of NASA set showing astronomer Nancy Grace Roman and the Hubble Space Telescope. On Christmas Day, Roman passed away at age 93. The loss of the woman widely acclaimed as the Mother of HST marks the end of a remarkable month of celebration and sadness for the Hubble Telescope team, now well into its 29th year of operating the great space telescope.

Roman studied astronomy despite being strongly discouraged from doing so, and university astronomy departments actively discriminated against women when Roman completed her graduate work in the 1950s. She took a job at NASA in 1959 a few months after the space agency began operations as its first Chief of Astronomy. During her career at NASA, Roman played an important role in fostering space-based astronomy through small scale space telescopes starting with the Orbiting Solar Observatory and building up to the formal start of work on HST not long before her retirement in 1979. 

Much of her work on HST involved getting astronomers, engineers and contractors to work together, an often difficult task. Her early research work in astronomy showed great promise, but she sacrificed that for the administrative work that helped much great science get off the ground, literally and figuratively. 

Although I didn’t have the opportunity to interview Roman while working on my history book on HST operations (which I hope will soon move to the publication process), I did meet her at a NASA history conference a decade ago. In her recent interviews, Roman expressed her pleasure that there are now many women astronomers in senior positions at NASA and elsewhere, but added there is still much room for improvement.

Many of those women have been or are involved with the Hubble Telescope, and earlier in December, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which has responsibility for Hubble's scientific operations, announced that their most recent process for awarding research time on HST had succeeded in eliminating gender bias. With support from NASA, STScI has worked for several years to eliminate gender bias from the telescope time allocation process, but the measures from previous years had always fallen short. For the telescope time awarded in 2018, consultants helped ensure that the identities of proposing scientists were not raised in any way during the allocation process. As a result, STScI succeeded in eliminating the gender bias from their process.

This news would doubtless have pleased Roman and also Riccardo Giacconi, the first director of STScI, who died earlier in December at age 87. STScI held a landmark conference on the place of women in astronomy in 1992 with Giacconi’s full support, a conference that helped open many doors to women astronomers at the Institute and around the United States and elsewhere.

Giacconi’s contributions to astronomy went far beyond HST -- he is credited for creating the field of X-ray astronomy and won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work in that field. In the dozen years he led STScI, Giacconi often caused controversy but made sure that the voices of scientists were always heard in decisions about the space telescope. He hired a top-flight staff for the institute and saw it create an astronomical data archive that will long outlive the Hubble Telescope. By ensuring that all HST data are made available in calibrated form, he has opened it to large numbers of astronomers and other experts who might not otherwise be able to use it.

Riccardo Giacconi in 2006. STScI photo.

NASA and STScI also celebrated the 25th anniversary this month of the historic first shuttle servicing mission of HST. The seven astronauts on the STS-61 mission restored HST’s vision, which was afflicted by an incorrectly ground main mirror, by installing two new instruments and by making other needed repairs. Their work turned Hubble from a national embarrassment to a symbol of America’s technological power, and STS-61 was followed by four more servicing missions that upgraded HST and extended its life to the present day and beyond.

I was able to attend part of this celebration, catching up with many friends from STScI and NASA. There I saw the friendships that were forged by the teamwork between the shuttle astronauts, the people who trained them, and the satellite servicing experts from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who worked with others from STScI and other NASA contractors to design the ingenious repairs for HST. 

The last shuttle servicing mission flew to HST nearly a decade ago, and no more missions are possible because the shuttle was grounded in 2011. That means HST is slowly breaking down as parts wear out. In October, HST went into safe mode while experts at Goddard dealt with problems with the gyroscopes that measure HST’s motion and are a crucial part of its pointing system. The success of their work and Hubble’s return to service in November no doubt added to the mood of celebration at the party I attended.

Also in December, STScI and NASA issued their 1000th news release on HST’s scientific work since its launch in 1990. "The combination of Hubble’s longevity due to the astronaut servicing missions, the enthusiasm of the astronomer community to trust us to translate and publicize their results, and the skills, hard work and dedication of our news team has brought us to this record-breaking pinnacle,” explained Ray Villard, STScI’s longtime Public Affairs Manager. "The public never tires of our news stories, which chronicle Hubble's extraordinary science history for future generations.”

We won’t have to wait long for new stories of discoveries related to HST. On New Year’s Day, for example, the New Horizons spacecraft will fly by a Kuiper Belt object known informally as Ultima Thule, which was discovered in 2014 by HST. A week later, a major gathering of astronomers in Seattle will see the release of more science from HST.

The people behind the Hubble Telescope hope and believe that it will still be functioning when its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, undergoes its scheduled launch in 2021. In any case, the legacies of people like Nancy Roman and Riccardo Giacconi will continue to enrich our knowledge of the universe for some time.

Astronauts John Grunsfeld, Mike Massimino and Scott Altman address the HST Servicing Mission Celebration, December 7, 2018, College Park MD. Chris Gainor photo.

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