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Hubble EVAs – one down, four to go..!

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I spent a lot of yesterday – and I mean a lot! – glued to my computer monitor, following the first spacewalk by the crew of shuttle Atlantis as they service the Hubble Space Telescope. By “following”, of course I mean clicking endlessly between NASA TV and Twitter. Following Twitter during the spacewalk was pretty amazing: reading and replying to the comments coming in from a dozen or so different Twitterers at NASA and across the world really added a new dimension to the whole thing. But NASA TV was the main attraction, and watching the spacewalk through NASA TV’s coverage really was like being in the shuttle’s payload bay with the astronauts.

The task of the first pair of intrepid spacewalkers was to remove the “old” wide field planetary camera (WFPC2) and replace it with a brand spanking new WFPC3 that, if fitted, would give Hubble dramatically better image gathering capability, and usher in a new era of even more breathtking space photography and science.

The WFPC camera is basically the size of a piano, and removing it from the Hubble’s tube was never going to be easy, but no-one expected it to be quite as hard as it was. The spacewalk didn’t start off well. It soon became apparrent that the bolt securing the camera was stiff, maybe even stuck, and repeated attempts to remove it failed…

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So, like any good repair men, the spacewalkers went to get some different tools – but they didn’t work either. By this time there was real concern that the old camera was simply not going to budge, and might have to be left inside Hubble to carry on its work, leaving the new, better WFPC stowed away in Atlantis’ payload bay for return to Earth, essentially useless for anything but being put on display in a museum…

But of course NASA never gives up on any problem without a fight (as the ever-heroic MER team are proving right now as they try and get poor Spirit free from its latest – and easily most dangerous yet – predicament, it is well and truly stuck in the dust, with its wheels literally buried… 😦 ), its astronauts especially so, and so they kept trying… and trying… and trying…

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NASA TV showed what I thought was quite amazing footage of the two spacewalking astronauts huddled together in front of the stubborn panel, helping each other, working together, clearly frustrated but not giving in to their frustration, and watching them working as a team was very inspiring, I have to say.

Eventually their efforts paid off, and the offending bolt started to move! Cue huge sighs of relief all round, both onboard Atlantis on orbit and at Mission Control on Earth far below, and the celebrations amongst those of us gathered together on Twitter were great fun too! Soon the old WFPC was being slid out of Hubble and manouvered gently down to a storage box in the payload bay below…

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…and soon after that the replacement camera was slowly but surely slotted into place. 🙂 It was a real triumph for everyone involved – the astronauts and the controllers, engineers and techs down on the ground, and an enormous relief too, because make no mistake about it, the failure to install the new camera would have been a major blow to the mission.

I think it also showed, very clearly, the worth of PEOPLE in space, at a time when NASA is under a lot of scrutiny and pressure, and manned spaceflight is being criticised. Robots couldn’t have done that, they simply couldn’t have. Why? Well, not because of any lack of manual dexterity, or equipment, but because they don’t have that basic, stubborn-as-a-mule human drive to beat a challenge and overcome a problem. Robots can’t – and never will – think “You WILL come out, you little *********!!!” when faced with a stuck bolt; they can’t – and never will – be able to feel the weight of a wrench in their hands and know instinctively just how much farther and harder they can turn it before either freeing a stuck bolt or breaking it. Robots are great, I love them. But put a determined man or woman in a spacesuit, and give them a task – inside a space shuttle’s payload bay, crawling around on the outside of the space station, or standing on the surface of the Moon or Mars – and they will bust a gut to achieve that task. I’m not American, but I was SO proud of those spacewalkers yesterday. 🙂 And, just for fun, I came up with a n ‘alternative’ mission patch for the crew… 🙂

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 Eventually the EVA ended, and the tired spacewalkers went back inside Atlantis for a well-earned rest and, I’m sure, more than a few back-slaps, whoops and high 5’s from their crewmates. Thanks to their efforts, when Hubble is released again it will be a far, far better camera, and will be able to take and send back images even more breathtaking that before. I can’t wait to see them!

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One Response

  1. Frustration is the word here too Stu. I’m still working with a modem wot runs on elastic bands – or 2 tin cans and a long piece of string!!!! It must be fantastic to be able to watch all this as it happens. It’s times like this that your blog is really appreciated – it’s nearly as good as seeing it myself! Thanks a lot. 😀

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