Handprints on Hubble

Category: Nonfiction
Reviewed by: Clifford R. McMurray
Title: Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Invention
Author: Kathryn D. Sullivan
NSS Amazon link for this book
Format: Hardcover/Paperback/Kindle/Audiobook
Pages: 304
Publisher: The MIT Press
Date: November, 2019
Retail Price: $26.95/$17.95/$26.99/$18.37
ISBN: 978-0262043182

When Kathryn Sullivan got her first look at the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), towering above her in a clean room at the Lockheed plant where it was being assembled in 1985, it appeared to her “a stunningly shiny silver creation…. None of the artists’ renderings and engineering drawings I had pored over during the preceding months prepared me for the beauty of the sight. Hubble looked like a piece of precious sterling silver. Put it in a light blue box and it could be a gift from Tiffany’s.”

Sullivan and her fellow astronaut Bruce McCandless had been picked to be the mission specialists on the Shuttle flight that would deploy HST in orbit, then scheduled to launch in 1986. The Challenger explosion in January of that year put that mission, and all other Shuttle flights, on indefinite hold. The three and a half year delay that followed turned out to be a blessing in the long run; it gave HST’s builders at Lockheed time to make many changes to the telescope that would make it much easier to maintain in orbit. Contrary to popular belief, the original plans for HST didn’t include the famous servicing missions by Shuttle astronauts. As originally conceived, HST would be periodically returned to Earth for servicing and relaunched after lab technicians had spent months in leisurely examination and upgrades. By 1985 that plan was already out the window, but it seemed there wouldn’t be time to make all the changes needed to allow astronauts in bulky pressure suits to get into all the nooks and crannies they would need to reach to do comprehensive maintenance in orbit. The Challenger tragedy allowed the engineers, in close consultation with Sullivan and McCandless, to make those needed changes—changes that made all the difference between success and failure after HST made it to space.

Sullivan was part of the first group of 35 astronauts selected to fly the Shuttle, and one of the first six female astronauts hired by NASA. On her second spaceflight, she became the first American woman to perform an EVA. In this book she has written a sort of dual biography, of herself and of HST, the subject of her final spaceflight. We follow her through her childhood and training as an oceanographer (after retiring from NASA, she became the first female administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), selection and training as an astronaut, and three Shuttle flights, the last of which delivered HST safely to orbit. In parallel, she recounts the story of HST’s conception, design and construction, and the engineers and astronauts who made it ready to fly, and rescued it when it turned out that the primary mirror couldn’t focus properly. That part of the story is about rigorous engineering as beautiful art. Its heroes are McCandless, who pushed relentlessly to make HST more maintainable and designed tools that became standard EVA equipment for astronauts on HST and other missions; and Ron Sheffield and his team of Lockheed maintenance engineers, who were equally tireless and dedicated to making sure that no astronaut would ever be surprised by a bolt on HST that didn’t match its duplicate on the ground simulation copy.

The list of autobiographies of Shuttle era astronauts grows steadily; this book is a solid addition to that list.

© 2020 Clifford R. McMurray

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