28 years ago today, Space Shuttle Endeavor launched from Kennedy Space Center for the first mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. Mission STS-61 was smack in the middle of the 30-year Space Shuttle era, so what made this mission so notable?
The crew of the Endeavor set a record for consecutive extravehicular activities (EVAs), more commonly known as spacewalks, completing five EVA sorties during the course of the mission. This included the second-longest single spacewalk in NASA history by F. Story Musgrave and Jeffrey A. Hoffman, at 7 hours and 50 minutes. Getting ready for a spacewalk isn’t exactly just throwing on a snowsuit for a day on the slopes. As NASA puts it:
“…Conducting an EVA is no small feat. The astronaut must don a spacesuit that has the same features as a miniature spacecraft. The spacesuit provides the necessary functions for survival in the harsh environment of space: air, pressure, communication, and protection. Additionally the spacesuit must provide maximum mobility, which, along with a variety of tools, allows the astronaut to perform useful work outside of the spacecraft, or on a planetary surface.”
So what exactly was so pressing that NASA needed send these astronauts on such a grueling mission? What prompted the organization that is so careful and precise, to the point that they measure launch times down to the thousandth of a second, to push the envelope?
Well, NASA was on the hot seat. The Hubble Space Telescope was the culmination of decades (or you could even say centuries) of astronomers’ desire for a better view of the universe. When it was launched and became operational to much fanfare in 1990, expectations were high. The $2.5 billion telescope had an unfathomably small flaw that had it sending unfocused pictures back to disappointed Earthlings. The mirror edge on the Hubble was too flat by one-fiftieth the width of a human hair (ah, there’s that need for precision!)
As it seems has perpetually been the case for years now, NASA’s funding and existence as we know it was called into question. The astronauts on this mission were able to correct the defect and make the telescope capable of the incredible images of the cosmos we’ve seen over the last three decades. Sadly, servicing for the Hubble ceased with the retirement of the shuttle program in 2011. In June of 2021, enthusiasts feared the Hubble had reached its demise after reports that its 1980s payload computer had degraded and was no longer functioning. However, about a month after things went haywire, NASA announced that it had been revived after a successful switch to backup hardware.
The Hubble has already doubled NASA’s preliminary hopes of a 15-year life expectancy, but some have suggested (perhaps optimistically) that the Hubble could continue to be operational until 2040. Here’s hoping the engineers at NASA can keep working their magic!
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Feature image: NASA photo (cropped)