Why I'm watching the Hubble repairs so intently

By Phil Plait | May 17, 2009 7:00 am

[Reminder: I’m covering the STIS repair live on Twitter on my BANews account.]

I was driving around Boulder the other day running some errands, and my travels took me past Ball Aerospace. I spotted this sign hanging from the side of the main building:

Sign on Ball Aerospace cheerig on Atlantis

This made me smile. Ball is where many of the instruments on board Hubble were built. That includes the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, or STIS, one of the finest cameras ever flown in space. And I know: I helped calibrate it.

Back in 1994, right after getting my PhD, I got a short-lived job working on COBE, which at the time was winding down after a long and highly successful mission. But because the project was closing down, it was a difficult work environment (which is true for any project): the computing equipment was aging, the money was tight, and the only problems left to solve were ones that were extremely difficult — and in my case, intractable. The writing on the wall was clear enough.

I started applying for other jobs almost immediately (a sad but common state for people with astronomy degrees) and happily was offered a position with a different company at Goddard Space Flight Center working on calibrating STIS, which was just starting to be built. That meant new equipment, more money, and a project with years of work ahead of it. Not being an idiot, I took it.

I took this shot of STIS as it sat
in its clean room at GSFC in 1996.
Click to embiggen.

After a few months, STIS was complete enough that it was time to start testing it. STIS was being built at — you guessed it — Ball in Boulder, and we all took turns flying out to Colorado to work on the new camera. It was in a clean room in a warehouse together with NICMOS, another camera slated to be taken up to Hubble. We sat in a little cubicled-off area with computers and a storage locker full of snacks, and got down to the business of examining the data from the camera.

It was the first time I had been to Boulder, and I loved it. Even working 12 (and once an 18) hour shifts, it was a great place to be. What a gorgeous area, and a friendly town! I dreamed of living there one day, but figured that would never happen.

STIS in 1996, ready to ship for launch.

Heh. I worked on STIS for 6 years, watching it finish getting built; standing in awe on a cold February Florida morning as the Shuttle Discovery roared into the night, carrying the camera to Hubble; testing the camera on-orbit to make sure it behaved as expected then having the honor and privilege of using it to observe objects as close as the Moon and as distant as a gamma-ray burst nine billion light years away.

Then, in 2000, when STIS funding was winding down, I had to choose between staying with the company (and working on the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, which was installed on Hubble just yesterday), or pursuing a new career in education and public outreach. I found I was enjoying talking about and even evangelizing science more than doing the research, so I took this new path, and off I went to California with my family. And after 6 years there, I was offered the chance to write a second book, and so I took it. When my wife mentioned that we could live anywhere in the country if I became a full-time writer — and then specifically suggested Boulder — that made the decision easier.

So here I am now, after all those years and all that distance and all those different careers, living in Boulder. And as I write these very words, astronauts are in orbit above my head preparing to work on STIS once again, hoping to replace some electronics that burned out back in 2004, resurrecting the dead camera so it can continue the work it once did.

So pardon me this self-indulgence. But seeing that sign brought it all back to me, and watching the NASA video live as it happens hammers it home. We live in a time where people go to space to work on telescopes that observe the Universe, from here to infinity. And sometimes the dice fall the right way, and guys like me get to lend a hand.

So I’ll be watching them today as they work on that old box of wires and mirrors and filters and chips, watching very carefully indeed. I’m a skeptic, so I won’t wish them good luck, or godspeed, or anything like that. I know that science and engineering and thousands of hours of training trump superstition.

But I’ll be leaning over my computer screen, hanging on every action the astronauts take just the same. Do well, my friends, and treat my baby right.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, NASA, Piece of mind

Comments (42)

  1. Oh, c’mon. Even a skeptic can say “Good luck!” or “I hope you do well!” to someone.

  2. John

    Yeah, it’s kind of funny. I would prefer STIS over COS for a variety of observations. Go STIS!
    Sadly looks like ACS HRC is dead….

  3. Jack Mitcham

    Wonderful story, Phil!

  4. PopcornSonata

    How sweet. We rationalists don’t get a lot of that. Case in point, I feel the need to mention that that wasn’t sarcasm.

  5. Katie H

    Jeeze you’ve led a cool life! I hope mine turns out to be that productive. Although, I’m blowing off studying for tomorrows tests to hang onto every minute of the Hubble repairs so I doubt I’ll have the focus :)

  6. Ever feel wistful about COS & wonder what twists & turns your life would’ve taken if you’d worked on that program? You could’ve ended up in Boulder much sooner…

  7. JoshH

    So Boulder isn’t just full of rock climbers, but also science geeks? Damn, sounds like my kind of town :D.

    You have the right to feel proud, Phil. Thanks for sharing that.

  8. I have to agree with the Ridger on this one, Dr. BA. Wishing someone good luck is not the same as believing in a lucky rabbit’s foot, or a lucky sweater, or thinking “luck” is something you can induce with a talisman of any sort. It’s just a way of saying, “What you’re doing is important to me and I hope you are successful.” Nothing wrong with that.

    It’s kind of like saying, Have a good day. Saying it doesn’t imply it’s a magic spell or anything, it’s just being polite.

    Best of luck to you, and have a nice day.

    BTW, that banner on the building is yet another way spending money on space helps the economy. Somewhere, a sign company is profiting off our investment.

  9. Tom M

    Ever wish you had taken a different path? IE: Astronaut.

  10. QUASAR

    What resolution does the WFPC3 have?

  11. @ Phil: I imagine you, sitting in front of your computers, speakers loud, with 2 or 3 different screensç, trying to catch all NASA-TV viewing options. With a basket full of snacks and several drinks ready to be swallowed.

    In the fridge, a bottle of champagne or similar beverage (beer perhaps :-p) ready to be opened when the work on STIS is finally and successfully done. Your pimple still anger, willing to disturb your concentration on the several screens.

    Close enough?

    Good luck to Astro_Mike with those bolts!

  12. Derek

    Thanks for sharing, Phil!

  13. Wade

    Nice to hear your background – in context – GO ATLANTIS indeed.

  14. Nicole

    Wow, that is touching. You have led a very cool career path! It’s amazing how when you work so closely with an instrument, you do feel, sort of emotional over it, even though you know it’s a thing. And when it’s an astronomical instrument, it may even take a (sometimes finicky) personality of its own.

    My very close friends understand when I say “Good skill!” instead of “Good luck!”

  15. Eric Perlman

    Phil, I loved this little vignette. Having done my grad school at CU, I loved Boulder too and it will always hold a special place in my heart. I had the pleasure of watching the launch and partying afterwards with members of the COS team.

    Quasar: WFC3 has two detectors, but the resolution of the optical channel is 0.04 arcseconds per pixel. By comparison HRC on ACS is 0.025 arcseconds per pixel. Plus it was UV-sensitive, which WFC3 really is not, and had a few extra filters that WFC3 doesn’t. So it will be missed.

  16. IVAN3MAN

    Phil Plait:

    So I’ll be watching them today as they work on that old box of wires and mirrors and filters and chips, watching very carefully indeed. […] But I’ll be leaning over my computer screen, hanging on every action the astronauts take just the same.

    Computer addict's office
    Is this Dr. Phil Plait’s office?

  17. cartologist jim

    the other morning I asked my boss if he had been following the Hubble repairs. He replied sarcastically that it was our tax dollars at work. I knew this guy was a corporate a’hole and Sarah Pallin lover but I still never knew what a dope he is until he said those words. Wish I could tell you that I came back with a pithy one-liner but alas if I had spoken at all I would now be unemployed. Phil, you give me hope in a dark world. Keep up the fight.

  18. Interesting, Phil, interesting!

    Regarding, say, the stiffenned bolt that had to have force used on it – surely “Good luck!” is a fair-goes imprecation from a skeptic? Wouldn’t that be acceptable short-hand for “I hope that bolt’s not so stuck/vacuum welded/whatever that it’s head shears off when you whack it!”?

    I think that even skeptics can allow themselves to say “Good luck!” when there are too many variables to calculate ahead of time, with too little data.

    Then again, I”m not hardcore like wot you is ;)

  19. I found I was enjoying talking about and even evangelizing science more than doing the research,

    BA’s an evangelist? At least it’s something worth evangelizing….

    J/P=?

  20. Gary Ansorge

    ,,,and the most famous phrase about luck is,,,
    “Luck favors the prepared mind,,,”

    Just as “Live long and prosper” is not a commandment or a wish, but a blessing, so to may good luck be taken in the same light,,,or possibly, “Good mind prep, Dude!”.

    GAry 7

  21. As somebody already said: What a wonderful story. Wish you all the best, and keep on the wonderful writing and glorious sceptisism.

    (Blog in swedish in case somebody clicks. And about a sad lifestory)

  22. TheTranceMan

    YAY! STIS is alive!!!!

    what a nail-biter of a day.

  23. Gavin Flower

    Curious, what is so bad about Ews, that you want to ban them??? :-)

  24. Ah, yes! Live Long and Prosper, indeed! (Good one, Gary)

    If the ever logical Spock is allowed, nay, cherished for his well-wishing phrase, then surely a simple human skeptic can wish someone good luck out of politeness. Unless, of course, you’d like to tell Spock that he’s nowhere near as rational as you…

    So, which is it BA? Are you even more cold and calculating than a Vulcan, or do you just need Leonard Nimoy to slap you around a bit?

    Makes me think *I* should come up with an original, lovable phrase of my own.

  25. I get your reasons for not saying traditional, superstitious semantics for well-wishing, which are sound, but if I think if I were the astronaut handling items worth 8 and 9 figures on live TV and with one chance to get it right, I think I’d welcome all the encouragement I could get.

  26. Electro

    at a loss for something clever to say…..

    Awesome, Doc, simply awesome

  27. Machine Elf

    Wanted to make a point, but it seems others already have. So just to reinforce it:

    This was a great post – wonderful personal touches, and enough to inspire any general reader about the wonders of science and how much fun it can be to be a scientist. And then you wrote ” I’m a skeptic, so I won’t wish them good luck, or godspeed, or anything like that. I know that science and engineering and thousands of hours of training trump superstition.” And I just rolled my eyes and went puh-leeze.

    In the quest to win over people, you have to relate to them. And saying “good luck” is human. Instead, that sentence just made me think “what are you, an automaton?”

    We won’t burn you at the stake for saying “good luck”. It’s a microcosm of where the skeptical movement misses the mark in spreading a love of critical thinking and science.

  28. MadScientist

    I agree Ball does excellent work; I think we need a few mid infrared earth observing instruments built by them. :)

    Watching the little clips of the astronauts working on Hubble is pretty amazing; nothing seems intuitive. On earth you could shake that beast and barely get it to wiggle, but in orbit the telescope is falling at the same speed as the astronauts and as the astronauts push tools against it you can see the astronauts go one way and the bird, despite its mass, move the other way.

    @JoshH: Boulder has lots of high-tech stuff. The NCAR is there (just opposite UCAR of course), Ball Aerospace (and if you wander over to Denver you have the Lockheed-Martin Space division). There’s a lot happening in Boulder though.

  29. MKremer

    Phil: I’m a skeptic, so I won’t wish them good luck, or godspeed, or anything like that. I know that science and engineering and thousands of hours of training trump superstition.

    How about “Best wishes”, instead? It implies you’re keeping a positive feeling and outlook to their endeavors and accomplishments, without involving ‘luck’ or any metaphysical influences.

  30. Used to work at Ball myself (albeit the Dayon, Ohio office). It’s truly a great company to work for.

  31. supton

    It’s always nice to look back. I recall reading as a teen a Readers Digest article about one of the Voyagers and how it was still going on, way longer than it was designed for. I think it was the first inkling that pushed me into engineering. Unfortunately, I’m a long way from anything space-related. :( But last time I was at the Smithsonian, I loved looking at what I could see, and wondering just how it was put together and designed…

    Anyhow, although I’m not a skeptic, I’m glad you found what you like to do, and have enjoyed life as so.

  32. Brian

    Thanx for the tweets, Phil. I spent the day at work but was able to keep the computer logged on to your twitter page. Every once in a while I had the chance to refresh. Great fun – thanx again.

  33. Cheyenne

    Saying “good luck” to somebody is yet another no-no on the Skeptic list? Wow. As a friendly suggestion to the movement – it’s really totally and completely harmless. It’s a friendly sentence that doesn’t imply any voodoo mysticism or anything. Trust me. Harmless. Not a thing to make a bother of.

  34. I enjoyed this introspective post.

  35. MadScientist

    “I know that science and engineering and thousands of hours of training trump superstition”

    Yep – don’t underestimate the training. Once upon a time when I had pet students I’d make them disassemble, pack away, set up, adjust, test, pack away, etc. in preparation for a field campaign. They’d be moaning and whining before the second day was through and I’d remind them they had another two weeks of practice yet. However, out in the field my slaves get things up and running in a matter of minutes (or hours, depending on exactly what we’re up to) while other groups who aren’t as anal about this stuff as I am can easily waste an entire week setting up and tracking faults. Now the astronauts train for months and years for these service missions – they can’t hang around indefinitely and even a small mistake can turn the entire bird into another piece of space junk.

  36. Matt T

    To those questioning Dr P’s avoidance of “good luck”, obviously I can’t read the BA’s mind (scary thought), but I think I know where he’s coming from here: putting the emphasis on the skills of those involved. I don’t think it’s really about “being a skeptic” or anything, just giving credit where it’s due and affirming your faith (haha) in someone. I would often say something similar to students taking me exams, something like “I would say ‘good luck’ but I know you don’t need luck”.

  37. Harbles

    The ultimate space geek field day (week)! A renewed observatory that can make many more discoveries for years to come. Hopefully it will still be operational when Webb comes on line.
    The utility of man in space was shown in full glory. Bust it off! I’d like to see a robot do that! lol

    Sadly right at the end an antenna got booted and now needs to have a cover installed to protect it thermally. The astronaut feels really badly from his repeated apologies to all. I really feel for him as we’ve all had those Doh! moments.

  38. Lewknukem

    I’ve seen reports that this upgrade will make Hubble 90 times more powerful than when it was first launched. However, I am sure that this takes into account the fact that there were flawed optics in the first one, so how much more powerful is the Hubble going to be than Hubble was planned on being originally? And more specifically, how is that figure even calculated in the first place since there are multiple pieces like different cameras, improved optics, processing, etc?

  39. Harbles

    Flawed optics … Ball aerospace … NSA … keyhole 14 …. yada …

    I haz tinfoil hat. It not helpin.

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