Reflections on Hubble

“It takes a long time to grow an old friend.”
–John Leonard






Today as I was watching EVA #4 on STS-125, I reflected on each of the Hubble missions and how they are tied with different phases of my career.  I’m so blessed to have a career I love in an endeavor in which I have total alignment of values and larger sense of purpose.  Hubble has been there almost as mile markers for events in my career.

Shuttle mission STS-31 flew in April 1990 and delivered Hubble to orbit (in NASA parlance, we call it a “deploy”).  I was a few years out of graduate school and was a very young engineer working in a part of mission operations called “Flight Design.”  At the time, I was working on a different mission that would fly two years later, yet STS-31 caught my eye for several reasons.  First, it was about Hubble.  All the promises I recalled as a kid growing up of putting an observatory above the blurring effects of Earth’s atmosphere were coming to fruition.  Second, my eye was caught by Mission Control.  I knew several of the people working there in the front row (called “The Trench”), and when I would catch a glimpse of them on NASA TV, I wondered: “Do I have what it takes to do that job?”  That question put me on a path of preparation – to be the best engineer I could – such that when the opportunity came to compete for a position in Mission Control, I was ready.  I was selected to train as a Rendezvous Guidance and Procedures Officer (call sign “Rendezvous”) the following year.

To everyone’s dismay, Hubble was launched with an optical flaw that hampered its ability to realize its full potential.  Shuttle mission STS-61 was launched in December 1993 with corrective optics and other upgrades to repair Hubble.  It was one of the highest profile and toughest shuttle missions ever flown.  By that point in time, I was well into my Rendezvous training and had at that point certified in one of the supporting positions in the “backroom.”  I was still quite green and was very worried about accidentally talking on the Flight Director loop or missing a call from the front room.  Most of all, I was simply amazed that I was in Mission Control for such an historic mission.  I listened to and absorbed the teamwork and trouble-shooting techniques I observed firsthand.  I felt a part of the mission even though my role was miniscule.  Upon its successful completion, I looked back on the mission and remarked to myself: “I am a real flight controller!”

A few months later, I completed my Rendezvous training and certification.  I conquered my “green-ness” and served with distinction on several key shuttle missions as a Rendezvous officer.  This led to me being recognized with a Space Flight Awareness award, one component of which was to be flown to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to be a VIP guest for a shuttle launch.  The launch was the second servicing mission to Hubble, STS-82 launched in February 1997.  To top it off, it was not an ordinary launch – it was a night launch!  By that point in time I had worked with several of the STS-82 crew members on other missions, so I had that extra connection with the flight.  It was a real treat to see Discovery lift off the pad and light up the area, almost as bright as daylight!  To date, that is my lone shuttle launch to see in person.

I served as a Rendezvous officer for nearly two more years.  After that, I joined the ranks of leadership at NASA and served as the “Group Lead” for a different group of flight controllers; the orbit and rendezvous Flight Dynamics Officers (call sign “FiDO”).  Shuttle mission STS-103, the third servicing mission to Hubble (called “3A”), was one of the first missions to occur after I assumed the Group Lead duties.  Besides needing to quickly learn the fundamentals of a different flight control position, I was learning how to cope in an entry level leadership role that involved leading people as its focus.  I was blessed with an outstanding team, which led me to one of my fundamental rules of leadership: set the direction, then get out of the way.  STS-109, the fourth servicing mission to Hubble (called “3B”) in March 2002, marked the end of a particular era for flight dynamics.  At this time, I was leading my group through a transition period in its computational engine and tools, and this mission marked for me a key point in my development as a leader: leading change.

Over seven years have passed since the last Hubble servicing mission, and for me those years have brought a number of changes about which I’ve written elsewhere (see The Journey).  My current tie to Hubble is through one of the key facilities used to train the astronauts for their Hubble repair tasks: the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which is a key component of the strategic effort I’m now leading (see The NBL).  As I reflect upon the nineteen years and counting of Hubble, I’m humbled that I’ve been a part of human spaceflight at this particular point in time.  The shuttle missions to Hubble mark stages for my career at NASA like an old friend.  And like an old friend, it may not always be in the forefront of my day, yet I can always count on it to be there there when important events occur.  Thank you, Hubble!

Reflections on Hubble