Eye On The Sky

*all photos courtesy of NASA

Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down

from Jackson Browne’s For A Dancer

Of the many strange episodes that have played themselves out in the course of my life, one of the more interesting was the two and a half years I spent working on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST) project.


The notion of building a large orbiting space telescope was conceived in 1946 by the noted astronomer Lyman Spitzer who wrote a paper titled Astronomical advantages of an extra-terrestrial observatory.  The main idea was that by getting beyond the distorting effects of earth’s atmosphere and away from civilization’s light pollution, a new and much clearer view of the heavens was possible.  The National Academy of Sciences recommended building the Hubble in 1962, and finally in 1977 Congress funded the project and the design and construction of the Hubble Space Telescope began. 

I joined the project in 1984 as a writer, though my over-blown title was Systems Engineer.  I produced technical documentation on the five Scientific Instruments that Hubble contained and served as the technical secretary to the Maintenance Mission Operations Planning Team that planned (oh so presciently as it turned out) for a possible ‘infant mortality’ on the main HST deployment mission. 


I worked at NASA’s Marshal Space Flight Center located on Redstone Arsenal in my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama.  Just about everything about it was interesting.  I attended numerous meetings with famous astronomers, astronauts, shuttle experts, physicists, cosmologists, engineers and assorted space and rocket scientists.  I didn’t contribute much but I observed plenty and it was nearly always fascinating (when it wasn’t boring beyond belief or simply overwhelming in its complexity – at a certain level of discussion scientists are capable of sounding like so many clucking chickens).

To attend meetings I often flew to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, the muggiest most humid place on earth, and frequently to Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland (just outside Washington D.C.), and to Baltimore where the Space Telescope Science Institute (STsci) is located, and occasionally out to Sunnyvale, California where Lockheed had the actual telescope under lock and key in a giant clean room.


At my homebase at Marshal Space Flight Center I got to go and observe the goings on at the WETF (pronounced WET-F), which stands for the Wet Environment Training Facility.  The WETF is a huge multi-story building containing a massive tank filled with water where astronauts train to simulate conditions in zero gravity.  All of the special purpose tools we designed for our emergency maintenance mission had to be tested there and all of the on-orbit maintenance procedures had to be run through again and again until they were perfected.

The HST deployment mission was originally slated to occur on the very next shuttle flight when the Challenger disaster occurred.  I was home sick with the flu that day and watched it happen on live television. 


I did not at first realize that it would spell the end of my involvement with HST.  I had been shopping for an apartment in Maryland as I was to be assigned to the HST Control Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute for the launch, deployment and Orbital Verification phase (a nominal 30 days) of the Hubble Space Telescope Mission.  But the entire project went into ‘station keeping’ mode while we waited to learn when we would be able to launch and deploy the Hubble.  It turned out to be nearly four years before we flew another shuttle.


It’s a good thing we went through all of that planning and training for an emergency mission because there was an urgent problem following the initial deployment of HST on April 25, 1990.  A miniscule but devastating flaw was discovered in the curvature of the main mirror.  Our plan for an emergency maintenance mission was immediately put into play; nevertheless it took until December 1993 before a camera was added that optically corrected the flaw in the mirror.  The Hubble has been a hero ever since.


The Hubble Space Telescope has been a giant leap forward for science.  Much of what we know about the universe, much of what is understood in the fields of astronomy and cosmology we have learned as a direct result of the deployment (and vision correction) of the Hubble Space Telescope. It has reignited our interest in the universe and has inspired amateur astronomers to seek out ways to view the cosmos, with many searching for telescopes such as the Celestron Powerseeker 80eq so that they can experience the wonders of our universe for themselves. The Hubble Space Telescope continues to reveal the universe’s secrets.

Before the Hubble was deployed black holes were just an arcane theory.  We now know that they are found in every galaxy in the universe including our own Milky Way.  The important discoveries of HST are many.

But for anyone as visual as I am, what’s really important are the images Hubble has produced.  They are stunning, both in terms of their scientific import and their sheer ethereal beauty, and the experts who worked on the project have been as stunned as anyone.








All in all I have to say that my time on the Hubble Space Telescope project was a highlight of my life.  I have often wished I could find my way back to that kind of work but it just hasn’t been in the cards.  It’s funny how the universe unfolds sometimes.  But one thing is certain, its wonders are overwhelming and every new discovery leads to even deeper mysteries, and all that we now know is but a miniscule portion of that which there is to be known.

Some links:

HST wikipedia

HST History

Space Telescope Science Institute

NASA’s Hubble Page



Skip to comment form

    • OPOL on October 14, 2007 at 23:23
  1. And a great story.

    You got to work on the Hubble, Wow!

  2. thank you for bringing your experiences to us in all their wonderful expressions. For some reason this essay brought Blake to mind:

    To see a world in a grain of sand,
    And a heaven in a wild flower,
    Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
    And eternity in an hour.

  3. grade schooler in college

    you guys run ahead, I’ll catch up.

    • srkp23 on October 14, 2007 at 23:53

    What an amazing essay! Thank you for sharing–wonderful to read about your experiences and just amazing to see the photos!

    You’re truly cosmic, friend! 🙂

    • Turkana on October 15, 2007 at 00:19

    your critics respond to this one…

    absolutely beautiful!

    • Edger on October 15, 2007 at 00:45

    What a project to have been part of.

    Inconceivable to me that there’s no one else out there. Too much wasted real estate if there isn’t…

  4. I used to have them as backgrounds on my computer for a while.  They’re so beautiful and awesome (in the traditional sense of the word), it really is great that we can finally see the universe like this.  It’s interesting too how they determine the colors for the pictures.

    I’m glad to hear about your work on this, I remember you mentioned it, and I’ve been curious as to what you did while you were working there. 

    • fatdave on October 15, 2007 at 01:44

    the awe without the shock. And we can go there! Sometimes the universe shows us little glances and no human can stop us.

    Thanks OPOL

  5. night sky, maybe The Simpsons:

    “Look at the stars, there must be hundreds of them!”

    Hopefully, humanity will evolve and mature, end war and injustice, explore this vast universe, and establish a civilization among the stars worthy of such a wondrous realm.

    We have to get past this global suicide stage we’re in though, and it’s not looking good at this point. 

    Run Al!

    Geez.  Do the planet a favor and be President for 8 years, then we might have chance. 

  6. I was working for Bendix Field Engineering, and we were installing a big-ass cluster of DEC VAX boxes with high-speed disk and tape to take the data from the downlink network and preprocess/archive it before it went to the guys up in Baltimore (Columbia, actually, wasn’t it?)

    • snud on October 15, 2007 at 02:21

    OPOL – totally excellent!! I stuck up one of the few, known shots of yours truly, pointing out that, as usual, I was headed in the wrong direction:

    Free Image Hosting at allyoucanupload.com

  7. Beautiful, can’t cloud it up further with words.

    But but but I have a question.  Good thing tinfoil’s OK here, this is partly in jest and partly dead serious… do you think?  or know?  if there has been an unsung effort to put stations on the moon (or elsewhere) about which the public knows nothing?

    And could this explain the absence of Dick Cheney’s presence/name in ages?  Maybe he’s there on a station on the dark side of the moon?

    [cue up laugh track, OK…]

    Pinche Tejano had a diary featuring, among other things, a structure on the moon allegedly filmed by Armstrong

    No kidding, have a look.

    Now I guarantee anyone there are indeed extraterrestial beings.  But in our typical human conceit we imagine they have the same born nudity, shelter and transportation needs we do.  The conclusion expressed in the diary was that aliens had built the structures.

    COME ON the structures filmed by Armstrong were in part post and lintel construction, which is all about reconciling vertical construction thrust with gravity more like that on earth than on the moon.  And all about grotesque Romanesque distortions of Greek dynamic symmetry and proportion.  No way was this construction not an earthling idea, the nature of the engineering is beholden to strong gravity.

    Which leads me to wonder… was this an early colonization effort?  Is more going on now?

    I have read that the space “industry” is privatized, that what NASA does is peanuts compared to what billionaires et al are now doing privately with rocket science.  They are going out for trips and none of the proles are hearing a word about this.  I believe one can google this… the article I read may have been in Harper’s or Atlantic Monthly some years back, maybe the New Yorker, can’t recall for sure.  Anyhow NASA is but a tiny fraction of what private money is doing in space travel.

    So.  Laugh.  But I have a hunch Cheney is literally off in space at times.

    Beautiful work, OPOL.  Salute.

  8. Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes,
    That call me on and on across the universe,
    Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box they
    Tumble blindly as they make their way
    Across the universe…

    And people say your not a realist, this is the real in all it’s beauty. Good work. Surely this helps people see what we are and where we came from. Awesome literally!

    • RiaD on October 15, 2007 at 21:50

    And I Still think you should run for pres!
    I’m just astonished by your photos…just completely amazed…these & the grand canyon are what the word Awwwwesome! was made for.

    I need your expert opinion…not if it IS…but if its possible.
    And I will understand completely if you don’t have the time…or think its complete balderdash… you see I ‘ve had this little theory pretty much all my life: http://www.dailykos….


  9. Glad I did. Wonderful OPOL!

Comments have been disabled.