Heroes On The Hubble

As someone who is beginning to more fully engage with the time-honored traditions of homeownership and, inevitably, the homerepairmanship that come with them, I have to offer a serious tip of the cap to the brave and extraordinarily talented astronauts who spent several days last week making a series of spacewalks in order to repair and replace worn-out and outdated instruments on the Hubble Telescope.

Most of you have probably done, say, some sort of plumbing venture in your house.  You end up upside-down, underneath your kitchen sink, with water dripping in your eyes, and you realize that you need a bolt that you failed to buy on your last trip to Home Depot.  Or maybe you just need that crescent wrench you left in the garage.  Either way, imagine that now, instead of having to hop in the jalopy for 5 minutes, or wander downstairs, you instead have to travel 358 miles.  Only, of course it’s not a nice, pleasant, pop-in-your-favorite-CD’s-and-drive-to-grandma’s kind of 358 miles, instead it’s a sheer vertical descent through the entire earth’s atmosphere.  That would suck, right?

Or, imagine there’s a particularly sticky bolt.  You want to give it a good whack, only there’s a couple problems.  One is that that bolt costs tens of thousands of dollars, and several of the greatest minds on the planet spent months designing specialized tools that were designed to get it off.  Another, more serious problem, is that whole ‘equal and opposite reaction’ thing.  You see, on Earth, gravity is holding you to the ground.  The ground is, then, pushing back into you, and holding you in place is the interaction between you and the ground we call friction.  So, when you really put your back into pushing on this bolt, your shoe soles don’t slip against the ground, and so the bolt moves and you don’t.

But when you’re floating in space, no gravity means there’s no easy way to let friction help you, and if you put your back into rotating a bolt attached to a massive space station, the net outcome is going to be you spinning, and not the bolt.

And yet, somehow, astronaut Michael Massimino managed to do just that, using a well-placed shove of sheer brute force to loosen a key bolt which the carefully-designed precision tools had managed to strip.

Getting around the whole ‘2% danger of the shuttle being destroyed by space junk’ aspect of the trip, I am just completely amazed that they managed to do so much precision work, changing out circuits, aligning cameras, and replacing old batteries, in the depths of outer space, wearing bulky spacesuits the entire time.  It appears that the Hubble will continue to broadcast us news from the beginnings of the universe for several years yet, and we’re all the richer for it.


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