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May 12, 2009
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

KU professor and ex-astronaut evaluates current Hubble service mission

LAWRENCE — When the Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off May 11 for the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, one faculty member at the University of Kansas watched with uncommon insight into what lay ahead for the crew.

Today, Steven Hawley is a mild-mannered professor of physics and astronomy. But Hawley previously served for three decades as a daring NASA astronaut, logging five shuttle missions that included both deployment and servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Of those five missions three of them were associated with NASA’s great observatories — two Hubble missions and one was the deployment of the Chandra observatory,” Hawley said. “So for me as an astronomer and then as an astronaut, the chance to participate in three space missions that had directly to do with either putting the great telescopes in space or improving the great telescopes in space was wonderful.”

Launched in 1990, the space-based Hubble observatory has provided dazzling images of the universe along with a revolution in astronomical understanding. The Hubble is credited with helping to pin down the age of the universe (13.7 billion years), proving the existence of black holes, and advancing concepts of star formation, dark matter and dark energy. The upcoming mission is designed to extend the telescope’s life and facilitate more breakthroughs.

“I think Hubble is quite possibly the most important scientific instrument ever built, because of what it’s been able to reveal,” Hawley said.

Hawley’s contribution to the Hubble program continues to this day — work he performed before the spaceflight to deploy the Hubble in 1990 laid groundwork for NASA’s current mission.

“We had Hubble on the ground for a period of time before it would go into space for the rest of its existence,” Hawley said. “That gave us the opportunity to develop procedures and to develop tools and techniques that we would need, knowing the concept for Hubble was unique and unprecedented. By virtue of being able to go back to it periodically with the space shuttle, we could repair components that had failed but also improve Hubble technology with new instruments.”

According to NASA, the servicing mission will involve multiple spacewalks where astronauts will install parts to keep the telescope operating until 2014.

“Hubble is showing its age,” said the KU professor. “And because the shuttle program will retire in 2010, this is the last opportunity to go to Hubble, at least with the shuttle. So we really want to do everything. We’re going to upgrade some systems, we want to install some new instruments, and we want to fix the two instruments that have currently failed and are not usable. If we can do all of that, then Hubble will be almost pristine and good for several more years. But it’s a very difficult mission — that’s a lot to do.”

Asked what guidance he would give to the crew of the spaceflight to the Hubble telescope, Hawley thought for a minute and then advised caution.

“Take your time and think about what you’re doing,” he said. “Because we always had a rule on the crews that I was on which was no matter how bad things are you can always make them worse. It’s a strange environment to be in particularly if you haven’t been there before. And there are very few things you have to do right this instant. So its always important to think about the next step and make sure that it’s proper.”

Born in Salina, Hawley received his bachelor’s degree from KU in 1973 and earned a doctorate of philosophy in astronomy from the University of California in 1977. As a NASA astronaut, he spent a total of 770 hours and 27 minutes in space during his five missions. He joined the KU faculty last August.

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