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NOVA: Hubble's Amazing Rescue

The seven astronauts of the STS-125 crew: Michael Massimino, Michael Good, Gregory Johnson, Scott Altman, Megan McArthur, John Grunsfeld and Andrew Feustel. The STS-125 mission was the final space shuttle mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Courtesy of NASA
The seven astronauts of the STS-125 crew: Michael Massimino, Michael Good, Gregory Johnson, Scott Altman, Megan McArthur, John Grunsfeld and Andrew Feustel. The STS-125 mission was the final space shuttle mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Airs Wednesday, September 5, 2012 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

The best-known scientific instrument in history was dying. After nearly 20 years in space and hundreds of thousands of spectacular images, the Hubble Space Telescope’s gyroscopes and sensors were failing, its batteries running down; some of its instruments were already dead. The only hope to save Hubble was a mission so dangerous that in 2004 NASA cancelled it because it was considered too risky.

Image Tours

Take a brief tour of some of Hubble's photos. We'll point out what's in the images and give you some fast facts about them.


Scientists and the general public alike stubbornly refused to abandon the telescope, and a new NASA administrator revived the mission. “Hubble’s Amazing Rescue” takes viewers behind the scenes on a riveting journey with the team of astronauts and engineers charged with saving the famous “orbiting observatory” against all odds.

According to Paula Apsell, director of the WGBH Science Unit and NOVA’s senior executive producer, “Hubble has been our eye on the universe.” Through the years, the space telescope has revealed the birth and death of stars and shed light on the mystery of black holes.

Apsell continues, “‘Hubble’s Amazing Rescue’ shares the story of incredibly brave people who risk everything to save the telescope so that we can continue to receive remarkable images and expand our understanding of the universe and our place within it.”

Hubble had been serviced four times before, including the famous 1993 repair mission that had corrected its blurred vision. But all previous missions had been “replacements,” not true “repairs.” Astronauts undid latches, removed a module and replaced it with a new one.

This mission would be different. Two of Hubble’s instruments — a camera and a spectrograph — had died, and no replacements existed. To revive them, astronauts would attempt procedures never tried before in space: opening up electronic assemblies, getting “into the guts” and performing delicate tasks previously thought impossible in order to make intricate repairs.


In his film for NOVA, Rushmore DeNooyer weaves together the compelling story of this dangerous 12-day mission and its five pressure-filled spacewalks.

Spacewalks are exhausting. Astronauts must work in cramped quarters and darkness while wearing clumsy spacesuits. The suits are pressurized and stiff; every movement takes concentrated effort.

The work is hardest on the hands; moving fingers is like squeezing a tennis ball. After eight continuous hours of exertion, it’s not uncommon for fingernails turn black and blue and fall off. And all repairs would have to be done in weightlessness, where everything floats and nothing stays where it’s put.

In space, a single screw floating loose into Hubble could ruin the telescope forever. “At first it sounded like this would be impossible,” recalls lead spacewalker Mike Massimino. Mission director Chuck Shaw says, “They’re actually opening stuff up and going inside — it’s like neurosurgery.”

For two years leading up to launch, filmmakers followed the mission closely, with unprecedented access to every aspect of the endeavor, from NASA’s training facilities for flight preparation to the historic mission itself.

DeNooyer and his production team followed astronauts Scott Altman, Andrew Feustel, Michael Good, John Grunsfeld, Gregory Johnson, Michael Massimino and Megan McArthur as they trained extensively for the mission — experiencing virtual weightlessness at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and practicing best procedures for the crucial spacewalks.

Following the May 2009 launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the crew traveled 5,276,000 miles in 197 Earth orbits. NOVA viewers see Hubble pulled from its own orbit by Atlantis’ huge robotic arm and moved into the shuttle’s payload bay, where it is housed during nearly 37 hours of painstaking repairs.

The Atlantis crew followed a meticulously crafted script, two years in the making, in order to stay on schedule — each spacewalk carefully timed based on oxygen supply and physical strength.

After all tasks were completed, Hubble was gently released back into space, now 10-to-70 times more powerful than when it was first launched — reaffirming its role as a vital scientific resource.

While “Hubble’s Amazing Rescue” documents the end of space shuttle missions to the world-famous telescope, it also excites viewers about new images, information and insights that will emerge from the powerful upgrades. DeNooyer, a veteran NOVA producer, describes Hubble as “a time machine that shows us how the universe looked when it was still young.”

Originally aired October 13, 2009.

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Watch Hubble's Amazing Rescue on PBS. See more from NOVA.

In May 2009, NASA sent a shuttle crew on a risky mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope for the last time. Hubble has enthralled scientists and the public by capturing deep views of the cosmos and a wealth of data from distant galaxies. It has helped lead the search for alien planets and is a crucial tool in one of cosmology's most crucial quests, investigating and mapping the mysterious dark matter that dominates the universe. Now the astronaut servicing team must carry out the first ever in-space repairs of Hubble's defective instruments, a task that requires ingenious engineering fixes and the most intensive spacewalk program of any NASA mission. From training to launch, NOVA presents the inside story of the mission and the extraordinary challenges faced by the rescue crew.