In Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Invention (MIT, Nov.), Sullivan, the first female astronaut to do a spacewalk, traces the incredible arc of her career.
What do you remember most vividly about your space walk?
“Walk” is the wrong word for a zero-gravity space walk. We moved hand over hand along rails installed throughout the cargo bay, keeping our clunky spacesuit boots pointed up and out of the cargo bay, so as not to damage anything. When I looked up at my hands while moving around, I felt like I was doing a handstand on the shuttle. The instant I looked straight ahead, I felt like I was dangling from the shuttle. My most vivid memory is the stunning view of the Caribbean and Antilles Islands I saw before me—not bounded by any window frame—and the sight of Venezuela’s Maracaibo Peninsula sliding between my feet.
What did you find challenging about telling your story? And what aspects of it came easily?
The hardest part was figuring out how to weave in the discussions of maintenance and invention I wanted to feature without dragging down the story line. I wanted to write a book that would let readers feel like they were perched on my shoulder as I lived these events, rather than like they were in a history class. My background research was the easiest. I interviewed a number of early Team Hubble players. It was great to reconnect with them, and I loved learning how the complex events I took in through my narrow little peephole looked to them. Their stories and archival materials helped me appreciate how events large and small that occurred outside my field of view affected our endeavors. Tracing the origin and evolution of the idea of on-orbit maintenance became a fascination.
I was amazed by how far in advance Hubble was planned. Do you believe such long-term planning is still feasible for scientific projects?
Scientists and engineers are always thinking far ahead of politicians and budgeteers. I’m sure hundreds of good ideas and preliminary designs for space missions or innovations are simmering right now in our universities and companies. The challenge, as the history of Hubble reveals, is to find the moment and the champions who will provide enough funding to move the ideas off the drawing board into actual design development, and then persevere through refinement, production, and testing. Small, incremental improvements are easier to understand, cheaper, and more likely to yield some gratifyingly tangible benefit in the near term. Transformational ideas are riskier and more expensive, but hold the prospect of paying a much greater dividend in the long term.