From Shuttle to Hubble: An Interview With Dr. Story Musgrave

The STS-61 crew restored sight to the ailing Hubble Space Telescope in December 1993. Standing at top: Richard Covey, Jeffrey Hoffman, and Thomas Akers. Seated at bottom: Kenneth Bowersox, Kathryn Thornton, Dr. Story Musgrave, and Claude Nicollier (ESA). Photo Credit: NASA
The STS-61 crew restored full sight to the ailing Hubble Space Telescope in December 1993. Standing at top, from left: Richard Covey, Jeffrey Hoffman, and Thomas Akers. Seated at bottom, from left: Kenneth Bowersox, Kathryn Thornton, Dr. Story Musgrave, and Claude Nicollier (ESA). Photo Credit: NASA

In space shuttle history, there is one astronaut who bears the distinction of having flown a mission on each orbiter. He began his spaceflight career flying on Challenger’s inaugural mission, STS-6, in 1983. In addition, the same astronaut’s career included—but was not limited to—thousands of hours flying T-38s, pioneering extravehicular activities during the program’s earliest days, and ultimately performing iconic spacewalks that would restore a defective, ailing space telescope into tip-top shape. Following that mission, STS-61, Dr. Story Musgrave would enjoy time in the media’s spotlight, but he wasn’t yet finished. On his last shuttle mission, STS-80, he stood up during Columbia’s reentry to film the orbiter’s fiery ride back home. At the time, he was 61 years old. In his biography, Story: The Way of Water, written by Anne E. Lenehan, fellow astronaut Tom Jones recalled, “He certainly, he went out the way he wanted to.”

Surgeon, pilot, mechanic, educator, student, and former astronaut, Musgrave enjoyed perhaps the most diverse career of any shuttle flier. On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope’s (HST) deployment, AmericaSpace spoke with Musgrave about its significance in space history, and the mission to save it in 1993. In addition, he discussed other career and mission milestones, and his feelings about NASA’s current path.

AmericaSpace: On April 24th, the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope’s deployment will be celebrated. Why do you think it’s important to keep this anniversary in mind, given HST’s significance to the scientific community?

Astronaut Story Musgrave is positioned to replace components at the end of Endeavour's Remote Manipulator Arm on its first servicing mission in late 1993. Photo Credit: NASA
Astronaut Story Musgrave is positioned to replace components at the end of Endeavour’s Remote Manipulator Arm on its first servicing mission in late 1993. Photo Credit: NASA

Dr. Story Musgrave: I suppose for the same reason any anniversary is important. Do you celebrate your birthday, ma’am? (Author responds: “Yes.”) Okay, there’s your answer.

AmericaSpace: Hubble is not only notable for its many years of service, but also underwent many modifications during servicing missions, most notably during STS-61—an unprecedented five separate spacewalks were made to correct issues. What do you think Hubble’s legacy is when it comes to being “fix-it men”—or women—in space? You underwent arduous training for months—even years—prior to flying your Hubble mission.

Musgrave: Hubble was the first major thing designed, from the start, to be serviceable in space. I started with Hubble in 1975. People don’t know that; they’ve forgotten that. I designed it; I didn’t just go and fix it. I had designed it for 18 years by the point I went to go fix it. There were some other satellites that had minor design issues, such as Solar Max. But [Hubble] was the first major satellite designed to be repaired by spacewalking. … I would say we started, on Hubble, in the [neutral buoyancy] tanks roughly around 1980. But these were not rehearsals, ma’am. They were not rehearsals. It’s research and development. There is a difference. This was not practice; this was to carve out the procedures I was coming up with.

You said the training was arduous. It was not arduous. That’s not a word that I use.

AmericaSpace: What word would you use to describe the process?

Musgrave: Just … slow. In due course. I wouldn’t call it arduous. That kind of has a negative connotation. It kind of makes it like it’s difficult, and it wasn’t difficult.

AmericaSpace: Looking back at Hubble after your mission, what do you think HST’s greatest legacy will be?

Musgrave: Hubble gave us images. Images make sense to people emotionally. There are a lot of scientific things, too; it gave us a visible view of the Universe. It was and is one of the more major observatories up there. It had the best resolution, and biggest light-detecting capabilities. The magic of Hubble is not power. It’s a very tiny telescope, and some of the technology is decades old … But it’s in space, with 100 percent clear viewing, and has the ability to point at an object for days, or months. That’s why it’s so darn good … It’s in pure viewing, and it can point at an object about as long as you wish.

People perceived Hubble as “their machine” from the very start. That’s why the mistakes made early on were really disastrous, and really hurt.

AmericaSpace: What were your feelings when Hubble ran into major issues early on post-deployment?

Musgrave: There were a whole bunch of issues, of course. It took a month or two for them to ‘fess up to the words “spherical abberation,” and the fact they’d put the wrong dang mirror in the telescope.

Most of the other failures should never have happened, either. The culture of the program was in failure, the teamwork was in failure, and the technology was in failure. If you look at the classics … if you look at many of our great satellites, such as the Voyagers, they’ve been up there for over 35 years now. They’ve already left the Solar System, and they’ve had no major failures. If you buy a new car, and you come out of the showroom with the new car and it breaks down before you get home, that is not because it wore out. That’s because it’s a lemon. That is because either the design was bad … or the quality was bad. Or the design was okay, and you didn’t build it to specifications. That’s what was going on with Hubble. It had very early failures. That’s a critical point … your car didn’t wear out, it was a lemon. Hubble was a lemon. But it got fixed.

Story Musgrave (left) and Don Peterson perform the Shuttle program's first EVA. The large tilt-table, used earlier in the mission to deploy the first Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, is visible in the background. Photo Credit: NASA
Story Musgrave (left) and Don Peterson perform the Shuttle program’s first EVA. The large tilt-table, used earlier in the mission to deploy the first Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, is visible in the background. Photo Credit: NASA

When we turned it loose [on STS-61], it was fixed 100 percent. The functionality was at 100 percent, or even slightly better, because we put things in that corrected the whole system, not just the mirror. We corrected all the failures. But of course, because the mirror had the wrong curvature in it, every instrument from that point on required corrections. COSTAR, that box we put in, it corrected for the pairs of mirrors, and several other instruments. The Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 … it had internal corrections. Because we couldn’t change out the big mirrors, we had to have corrections—from that point on—on every instrument that we put in.

AmericaSpace: You were among the first two shuttle spacewalkers during STS-6, and ended up in part performing some of the most iconic shuttle EVAs of all time during STS-61. On this 50th anniversary of spacewalking, what can you say shuttle and previous programs, such as Skylab, taught you about working outside spacecraft?

Musgrave: I became the point of contact for all design of all spacewalking equipment in 1972. Also in 1972, I started working on the shuttle, and every aspect of shuttle spacewalking. That’s another thing, you know, that gets lost in the work you do. I designed the space shuttle suits and life support systems—when I say “I,” it means I was the lead astronaut to do that. Of course, I was working with a team. I worked as a designer and project manager for 11 years prior to STS-6. That work gets lost, or they never knew it. I worked on every aspect of spacewalking, including contingency procedures.

I became a point of contact with Skylab spacewalking, too. I was principal in developing all of the Skylab procedures. At the time, the procedures were only for film retrieval and replacement. Remember, it was all film in those days, we didn’t have digital. All the walks were to go out and change film canisters … retrieve data, and refill the canisters. Well, of course as soon as we launched Skylab … we lost a micro-meteoroid shield, one entire solar panel, and a second solar panel was hung up by a strap, so it couldn’t deploy. Inside the lab was 126 degrees Fahrenheit, and we didn’t have half the electricity we were supposed to have. Skylab was in desperate shape.

So we went to the hardware store, and we filled the pool with stuff we bought from the hardware store. That was fast, and it was what we needed to do. Then of course, from the launch on, we had to do contingency walks [in the neutral buoyancy tank] to save the lab. I, too, played a part in developing those walks.

Dr. Story Musgrave, 1980 NASA portrait. Photo Credit: NASA
Dr. Story Musgrave, 1980 NASA portrait. Photo Credit: NASA

AmericaSpace: On STS-61, why did you assign yourself as EV2 (rather than EV1) on STS-61, despite being the payload commander and chief spacewalker?

Musgrave: I was doing everything I could do to disempower myself. People objected to my changing the designation. I was trying to disempower myself, because I was a threat. I had designed the thing, and worked on it since 1975. I had become an authority, and authorities are threats. I wanted the best answers, just like in an operating room. In the operating room, the surgical nurse knows more about what’s going on than the surgeon. You’ve got to empower the people around you to speak up, and to get the best solution.

I did not want to stand as an “authority figure.” I still did [to some extent], because I’d been at it for 18 years, but getting myself to be EV2 helped in that regard. That was my thinking.

AmericaSpace: The successor to Hubble—the James Webb Space Telescope—is currently being developed and aimed for a 2018 launch. Why is it important for NASA and international space agencies to “keep on keeping on” looking into the Universe?

Musgrave: It’s very good science, and it means a lot to people. … People have always looked to the heavens, for the meaning and hope of the lives they have here. They’ve always looked at [the skies] to shed some answers as to what’s down here. They’re very powerful machines, Hubble and Webb. They bridge the gaps between cosmology, geology, astronomy, and philosophy.

AmericaSpace: What are your thoughts about NASA’s current path, which includes Orion/SLS, Mars, and proposed Asteroid Redirect Missions? Do you think the rise of commercial space entities within the last decade, such as SpaceX, may be a permanent game-changer?

Musgrave: Who is focusing on Mars? Are they? …

Tell me how many dollars are allocated for Mars. They have to talk about Mars as if they have some future, or else, what are they going to talk about? That’s the question in the next three budgets, and the current one: How many dollars are allocated toward Mars? It’s called: Zero or none. Do we have a Mars program, with zero dollars allocated to the program? How many dollars are allocated to going back to the Moon? Zero. How many dollars are allocated to doing something with an asteroid? Zero.

That’s the bottom line. When Congress says you have to spend money on something, you have to spend it there. You don’t steal it from one program, and give it to another. And so … Are we going to Mars? First of all, you ask when, with what hardware, and all the rest of these things. You ask, how much money do we have in the current budget? Well, if we have zero for the next few years, we’re not going there. You shouldn’t pretend you are.

Orion is no more “deep space” than Apollo was. It has a 21-day lifespan … Orion is great Moon vehicle, just like Apollo was. Now, if you hibernate, you might get a few more months out of it. It’s an upgraded Apollo, that’s what it is. SLS is not even as good as the Saturn V; only the upgraded version might be equal to the Saturn V. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it. I’m just saying NASA doesn’t have the vision—NASA doesn’t think they should have a long-term vision of spaceflight. The administration and Congress aren’t good at vision, and never were. NASA needs to get back into vision, get the public behind them, and make it happen. That’s the way I see the “vision thing.”

Also, I’m all for the entrepreneurial spirit, but do we need five different ways to get to Earth orbit? Do we really need five ways? By the way, they [referring to commercial spacecraft] only go to low-Earth orbit.

AmericaSpace: Finally, what were your feelings during the STS-51F Abort to Orbit (ATO) in 1985? This was the only ATO in shuttle history.

Musgrave: We were the only flight to lose a main engine after launch. We had a launch abort, too, 17 days earlier on the pad. [The infamous call to “inhibit limits”] told us there was something else going on we didn’t know about. Jenny Howard was working the [space shuttle main engine] sensor problem [in the Mission Control Center in Houston]. You’ve played that to yourself on YouTube, right? [Laughs] It’s a nice recording; it’s kind of fun.

That was Jenny Howard, and I’ll never forget … Jenny wanted the computers to be able to shut down a bad engine instead of riding it to disaster. That’s what she did there. Then, the right engine got into sensor problems, too. [It appeared] she was getting to lose another engine, now … That’s why she screamed, “We’ve got to get to inhibit.” She had a bad day, she had three sensors fail out of six.

It doesn’t matter to me how many years it has been … 30 years ago? [Laughs] I haven’t forgotten her. When I’m flying, I know when engines are having their day, I know Jenny Howard’s down there working it.


Many thanks to Ben Evans for assistance with questions for this interview. Also, of course, many thanks to Dr. Story Musgrave for his participation.


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