After being the first to “let go” of the Hubble space telescope, former NASA astronaut Steve Hawley had mixed emotions this week as the last repairs were completed on the telescope.
Hawley, now living in Lawrence and serving as an astronomy professor at Kansas University, said on Tuesday that although he’s pleased that the repairs will probably give the Hubble about five to 10 more years of useful life and expand its technical capability, there’s an emotional component, too.
“No one will probably ever see Hubble ever again,” Hawley said, after being involved with the telescope for about 25 years. “The fact that this is the last time is significant and emotional for me.”
Hawley visited the Hubble telescope twice, both aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Once in 1990, when he controlled the robotic arm that released the telescope into space, and again in 1997, when he participated in repair and upgrade work on the telescope.
He said he’ll remember the significance of the Hubble telescope in two major areas. The first is scientific, he said.
“It’s literally rewritten the textbooks in astronomy,” he said, helping determine the answer to fundamental basic questions such as the age of the universe, the existence of planets rotating around other stars and the existence of black holes.
But beyond that, it’s had a second function, too, Hawley said, in that it’s somehow entered the collective minds of the public. Hubble photographs appear on posters in classrooms throughout the nation, and Hawley said that if you asked a member of the general public about an accomplishment of NASA’s space program, chances are they’ll point you to either walking on the moon or the Hubble space telescope.
Though other telescopes have followed in Hubble’s path and made remarkable scientific findings, they have names that largely escape the general public — like Spitzer and Chandra — Hawley said. A new telescope, the James Webb telescope, is scheduled to for launch in 2014, but will use mostly infrared imagery, instead of the optical visuals the Hubble primarily used.
When he left the last time, he said that although he knew he would never get a chance to see the telescope again, he knew his friends would.
“When (NASA astronaut) Megan (McArthur) released it this morning, I knew that no one would ever see it again,” he said.
It’s not the telescope itself that’s preventing its continued use, Hawley said, it’s NASA’s decision to discontinue its space shuttle program, removing the possibility of repairs and upgrades.
The only time he could see the telescope now, he said, would be when it crashes down into the ocean at the end of its life in space.
“I don’t know if I can watch that,” he said.