A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.



Godspeed

We astronomers like to toy with the ideas of life and of death. We name distant objects after gods of the dead and underworld, like Orcus or Pluto, we eagerly discuss cannibalistic galaxies and gamma ray bursts that would wipe out civilizations for light years in radius. We talk about catastrophic impacts and the possible slow death of the entire universe. But, usually, it is just a vicarious show. Nothing that we study out there in the universe will is likely to actually affect anything down here on earth. Nothing that we do is really a matter of life and death.
Except for this week.
This week, for the sake of astronomy, seven people will strap themselves on to the top of a controlled explosion and launch themselves almost 200,000 stories into the air. If all goes well, they’ll spend nearly two weeks confined to a tiny container holding the only patch of livable space for 400 miles in any direction, before they drop back to earth in a flaming descent that transforms into a supersonic glissade to the ground.
The seven are the astronauts on the final Space Shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. If they are able to carry out everything on their extensive list, they will leave behind an enormously capable telescope capable of years more of distinguished and fascinating scientific inquiry.
Astronomers the world over will rejoice, but I will rejoice a bit more than average. A year ago, I proposed to the committee in charge of the Hubble Space Telescope that they allow me to spend a significant amount of time on the telescope to use one of the brand-new instruments being put in by the astronomers to study the origin of the Kuiper belt. It was a bit of a long shot, I thought. These committees tend to favor things such as figuring out the origins of distant things, like galaxies, or the universe itself. Our local neighborhood is often overlooked. But the committee liked the idea and now all that stands between me and getting to use this fantastic new instrument in space is the fact that the instrument itself is currently sitting in Florida. At least as of this moment. But come blast-off it and the seven astronauts will be on their way to space.
This moment almost never happened. If I were in charge, it never would.
After the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia break up over Texas, NASA declared that the only safe way to fly the Space Shuttle was to go to the Space Station where it could be inspected and, if problems were found, astronauts could temporarily stay while repairs or rescues were mounted. But because of their very different orbits, you can’t get to the Space Station if you go to the Space Telescope. Thus, there would be no more flights to the Space Telescope and it would soon plummet to the earth and burn up in the atmosphere.
There was a great outcry. Hubble is invaluable! Hubble is a national treasure! It seemed as if every astronomer out there had stories to tell about why Hubble was spectacular.
I agreed. I had my own stories, even. Many of the fabulous finds about dwarf planets over the past decade have been made by or aided by the Hubble Space Telescope. And there are many many more things that I still want to do with it. And then I said that it was OK to let it die. Hubble had had a spectacular decade and a half, and if it was not safe to refurbish it anymore we astronomers needed to celebrate its legacy, mourn its loss, but accept that it was for the best. This was no longer an abstract matter of galactic life and cosmic death: this was a matter of real life and, quite possibly, death. This actually mattered.
I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, a thoroughly dedicated space town, and reminders that things do not always go as planned are strewn throughout the city. The high school to which I went was named after Gus Grissom, who died during a pre-launch test of the Apollo 1 mission. Ed White and Roger Chaffee – who died along side Grissom – have their own schools just across town. You can see the Challenger school from the back deck of my parent’s house.
I love space exploration. I love human space exploration. I grew up on it. I wanted to be part of it. I became an astronomer because of it. I understand – I think – the risks, and am even willing to accept them. Sometimes. But not blindly. I feel that many of the astronomers pushing and pushing and pushing to get the Shuttle to fly to the Space Telescope never once thought about the risks, never drove around a town with schools memorializing astronauts who never came home. This actually mattered.
What are the risks of catastrophic failure, as the worst-case scenario is known? I have heard absurdly precise estimates of 1 chance in 187, though I neither know how these numbers are arrived at nor put much faith in them. I do know that this next mission is designated STS-125 – the 125th Shuttle flight. Two have ended in disaster. That’s 1 in 64. While that’s not quite Russian roulette with a six-shooter and a single bullet, neither is it a short drive to the office in light traffic. It was worth thinking hard about this. This actually mattered.
In the end, the tea leaves were clear from the beginning. The outcry was too loud for the Hubble to be allowed to fall from the sky. The Space Shuttle would go after all.
It’s probably good that I wasn’t in charge. I don’t think I ever want to be in the position of making decisions that could directly lead to someone never coming home to their family again. But someone has to make those decisions. I would have chosen differently, but I understand the choice. The astronauts themselves know what they are getting in to and are itching to go. Who am I to say no? And, since the decision is made and they are indeed going, I’ll be the one watching from down here on earth cheering loudly, remembering the excitement I’ve felt with every blast off I remember from Apollo on. And this time I’ll be cheering even more loudly, thinking about the years of discovery ahead and the origins of the Kuiper belt and things about which I have not even begun to dream.
You will likely not be surprised to learn that I am a non-religious person. I draw my spiritual inspirations from Etruscans and Inuits and small children and the full moon itself. And yet, when searching for the right incantation, the right words of encouragement and amulet against harm, the best one that comes to mind describes something that those seven astronauts will both have in an almost literal sense and certainly need in the intended sense:
Godspeed, STS-125, godspeed.

6 comments:

  1. If this mission is too dangerous to risk astronauts lives, then what shuttle missions are more important? Not only will this mission be the farthest that humans have ventured from the Earth since the last Hubble mission, but it is a mission with a clear goal and scientific payoff. When's the last time NASA gave us that?

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  2. Safe return and amen.

    We name distant objects after gods of the dead and underworld, like Orcus or PlutoAnd now one of those who named is gone.

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  3. @Chuck

    'If this mission is too dangerous to risk astronauts lives, then what shuttle missions are more important?'Didn't you read the post? It's not that the other missions (i.e. those that visit the ISS) are more important, it's that they're safer.

    '...it is a mission with a clear goal and scientific payoff. When's the last time NASA gave us that?'Let's see, oh, about a week ago. You're just not paying attention. You might start by following the Weekly Research Summaries here.

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  4. Hi, Mike :)

    Well, the astronauts have made it into orbit and have changed out the camera, that's good. Tomorrow they will change out the gyroscopes.

    We had a local acheivement here, the Austin-Bergstrom Airport was completed with 0 days lost to accidents. Absolutely stunning. I think the President should have showed up to cut the ribbon, but not even the Governor showed up (it was W at the time). Every American gets a birthday card from the President on his 100th birthday, and I think achievments like the airport or a million miles without an accident should get a Presidential citation.

    I fear accidents like this. The Hubble repair job isn't nearly as dangerous as fixing the ISS's solar arrays. The designers neglected to put an "off" switch on them, they were live wires.

    Most lost astronauts passed on the way down. I don't think, despite Cold War rivalries, that anybody cheered when the cosmonaut's parachute lines got twisted into a knot. Nobody snickered or chortled when three other cosmonauts let the air out of their ship. The most dangerous part of the journey is still ahead. But I'm an optimist, I eagerly await the cheer at the end of the runway.

    Mike, I believe I would have decided differently than you would have. Life is dangerous. It requires courage sometimes. As you noted, the astronauts know what the dangers are and are willing to take the risks anyway.

    Because it's important.

    Just the knowlege itself is that important! Plus, I think our destiny is in space. It's where it's at. Planetary surfaces are confining, we need to get off.

    Of course, there's juvenile bravado, too. The Onion wrote a very funny article with an obscene title:

    http://www.theonion.com/content/news/chicken_shit
    _asteroid_veers_away

    featuring your very good friend David Rabinowitz:

    ""Everybody knew that asteroid was a poseur," Rabinowitz said. "If it didn't have the balls to come within 100,000 miles of Pluto 15 years ago, how's it even gonna consider messing with Earth? What, did it think it was going to be another 1908 Tunguska Event? Don't make me laugh."

    Rabinowitz also estimated that even if the asteroid had managed to remove its giant tampon and hit Earth, it most likely would have landed harmlessly in the ocean or the Sahara Desert."

    Of course, it's The Onion, a college humor "newspaper". I'm kind of curious if David really said that. I'm quite sure he has a sense of humor, too.

    In my opinion the whole Pluto-planet "controversy" was about this kind of juvenile bravado. But I don't think the Shuttle program is that way. These guys are 100% serious. I would ride in their chariot in a twinkling of an eye, but it's real easy for me to say that, I wouldn't pass the physical!

    :D

    -Mike Emmert

    P.S. Preview fail (sigh). Couldn't get the link to work, need to copy/paste in browser.

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  5. Thanks Mike. I'm an atheist myself, and at times I'm searching for the right words to describe the same sense of majesty, and am left as you are. Glad I'm not alone.

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