NASA Science Head Grunsfeld and Congressional Champion Mikulski Both Set to Retire This Year

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Publication date: 
8 April 2016
Number: 
44

Two individuals who played key roles in supporting the Hubble Space Telescope and shepherding numerous other high-profile NASA science projects are retiring this year—former astronaut and NASA's associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld and Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland.

“After exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life in the universe, I can now boldly go where I’ve rarely gone before – home,” said John Grunsfeld, former astronaut and current director of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, announcing this week that he will retire at the end of April.

Grunsfeld in space shuttle Columbia's cargo bay during a 2002 spacewalk. (Photo Credit – NASA)Grunsfeld joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 1992 after earning his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. After flying five missions on the space shuttle, he left NASA in 2009 to become deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, then returned in 2012 to become director of the Science Mission Directorate.

His exit adds to the list of figures who have played an outsized role in NASA’s history who will be retiring this year. Another notable departure is the upcoming retirement of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) who announced last March that she will not run for reelection this year.

A longtime leading member of the Senate appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over NASA, Mikulski has been one of NASA’s biggest champions in Congress—especially for projects at the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Space Telescope Science Institute in her home state.

Rep. Donna Edwards, the current ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Space, and another Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen are running for Mikulski’s seat.

Mikulski and Grunsfeld worked to fix Hubble’s troubles

Both figures played critical roles in the saga of the Hubble Space Telescope—Mikulski in the halls of Congress, securing support for the at times beleaguered telescope, and Grunsfeld in space, fixing and upgrading the U.S.' unique window to the universe.

Much to NASA’s and the country’s dismay, the first images returned from Hubble in 1990 were blurry due to a flaw in the telescope’s primary mirror. Undeterred, Mikulski was instrumental in securing congressional support and funding for a 1993 shuttle mission to fix the mirror. 

At a 1994 press conference shortly after the first Hubble servicing mission, Mikulski revealed how what she described as the “most significant contact lens in history” greatly sharpened Hubble’s view of the universe. (Photo Credit – C-SPAN)

The mission was a great success, and at the 1994 press conference where she revealed the stunning images Hubble was now capable of returning, Mikulski declared “the trouble with Hubble is over.”

Unfortunately, Hubble’s troubles did not end there. After the fourth of its six gyros failed in 1999, the following servicing mission—which Grunsfeld participated in—was key to bringing the telescope back online.

Furthermore, after the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster raised concerns about the shuttle’s reliability, future missions to Hubble were put in jeopardy. Then NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe decided to cancel the subsequent servicing mission. However, perhaps due to the outpouring of public support marshalled by Mikulski and the urging of a National Academies panel, the subsequent NASA Administrator Michael Griffin reversed O’Keefe’s decision and a final servicing mission was flown in 2009.

Grunsfeld was the lead spacewalker for the 2009 mission which significantly upgraded and extended Hubble’s life. All told, Grunsfeld participated in three of the five Hubble servicing missions, earning him the nickname “Hubble hugger.”

NASA’s telescope trials and tribulations did not end with Hubble. In particular, the in-construction James Webb Space Telescope came perilously close to being cancelled by Congress in 2011 due to large cost overruns and schedule delays. Once again, Mikulski came to the rescue, helping to negotiate an agreement by which the project would continue with a $8 billion cost cap. And at the helm of the Science Mission Directorate, Grunsfeld has helped to keep the program on schedule for an October 2018 launch.

Mikulski reflects on Hubble’s legacy at appropriations hearing

Last month, during what may be her last appropriations subcommittee hearing on NASA, Mikulski devoted much of her opening statement to reflecting on how she came to take such a personal interest in the space agency. The full text and video of her remarks are available here. The segment of her statement devoted to Hubble is included below.

We’ve had a lot of success, as well as some cliffhangers and nail biters, too. But whether it was repairing the Hubble Telescope, returning the shuttle to flight or building next generation space transportation, we were all in it together.

Let’s talk about one of those successes – Hubble. I never thought I’d have a personal relationship with a telescope. Nothing defines my relationship with NASA quite like Hubble. There is nothing in the world – in the universe – quite like Hubble. Hubble is the greatest tool for studying the universe since Galileo’s telescope. It is responsible for the Golden Age of Astronomy, seeing further and more clearly than any telescope in the world – or universe. It has its own website – its own email! So many emails come from kids asking, ‘Did you see God today? Is there another universe? What does it look like?’ It inspires our next generation of scientists and engineers.

You all know the story. Administrator Bolden launched the Hubble, but it couldn’t phone home and the fix would cost $600 million – the most expensive contact lens in history. But I knew what Hubble could mean for science, for our country! And because of Goddard and NASA’s work, the mission to fix Hubble was a success.

But the ups and downs weren’t over. In 2004, the Bush Administration pulled the plug on the fifth and final service mission. We received thousands of letters from kids asking President Bush to reconsider. This committee asked for a second opinion, held hearings and then fought for the budget, eventually putting in the funding to save the last servicing.

I am so proud of what Hubble has done. Hubble constantly rewrites astronomy textbooks, has examined more than 38,000 objects and made more than a million observations! It’s made more than 140,000 trips around our planet and travelled over 3.8 billion miles – almost the distance from our sun to Pluto.

All that data is free to anybody, anywhere. Any rich nation can build a space telescope, but only a great nation gives its information away for the common heritage, the common betterment of mankind. Hubble is America’s gift to the world.

About the author

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