News Column

Final flight filled with complications

July 17, 2014

By Ryan Christner, The Hutchinson News, Kan.



July 17--It must have seemed as if the universe was working against the project.

From budget cuts and redesigns to failed launch attempts and warning lights, just getting the Chandra X-ray Observatory off the ground proved an exceptional challenge, retired astronaut Steve Hawley recalled of the last of his five shuttle missions Thursday during a presentation at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center's monthly Coffee at the Cosmo lecture series.

Proposed as the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility in 1976, two years before the Salina-reared Hawley was accepted to NASA, Chandra was part of a "visionary program" -- along with the Hubble Space Telescope, Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and Spitzer Space Telescope -- to monitor the entire electromagnetic spectrum, allowing for the observation of images not possible from inside Earth's atmosphere.

But, Chandra's premise -- to use a series of mirrors to focus X-rays previously too sensitive to detect -- seemed too far-fetched to some.

"Congress was very skeptical that people could build a mirror device that could channel X-rays," Hawley said, thus beginning the period known as the "mirror challenge" to build a working instrument.

As work continued over the next two decades, the project suffered budget cuts, and the AXAF underwent a cost-saving redesign that, among other things, changed the craft's planned orbit to an elliptical path around the Earth, which eliminated the possibility that astronauts would ever be able to make improvements or repairs, as has been done with Hubble over the years.

The year before its launch, AXAF was renamed Chandra, after Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago who was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics for his mathematical theory of black holes.

Hawley, who retired from NASA in 2008 and currently serves as astronaut adviser to the Cosmosphere in addition to his duties as a professor at the University of Kansas, boasted to the large crowd about his distant relationship with the scientist through his teacher-student lineage.

"I've always been proud to say I'm a Chandra great-grandstudent," he said

Trouble followed the spacecraft right up until launch time in July 1999.

During the first opportunity, with seconds to go in the countdown to launch, Hawley said a member of the control center decided to "scrub," or call off, the mission due to concern there may be hydrogen in the engine compartment.

"In my book, that guy was a real hero for making a tough call," Hawley said.

Despite a 100 percent chance of "go" weather predicted, lightning in the vicinity eliminated the shot for a flight the next day.

"How do you know a weatherman's lying?" Hawley asked the rapt audience. "His lips are moving."

While he certainly couldn't be blamed for the disruptions in the Chandra mission, Hawley conceded some small part could be attributed to his own bad luck.

"It's certainly true that I hold the record for launch futility," he said, citing the 17 launch attempts for his five shuttle flights.

Even a successful third attempt wasn't without drama, though.

As the countdown commenced and the space shuttle Colombia began to make its ascent into the sky, Hawley said he noticed warning lights flashing on a panel next to him.

That potential scare was diagnosed as a relatively harmless electrical short, but a larger problem arose later on when an engine nozzle supplying hydrogen for the fuel system was broken by a dislodged pin. As a result, a sensor shut down the engine earlier than expected.

Thankfully, the shuttle had reached a high enough altitude to continue with its mission, and Chandra had no further complications after deployment.

The X-ray observatory, which still is in use today despite an original presumed mission length of five years, is just one example -- as well as the Voyager probes launched in 1977 that are still transmitting data -- of the longevity of American space technology, Hawley said.

"We are really good at making things that last a long time."

___

(c)2014 The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kan.)

Visit The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kan.) at www.hutchnews.com

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Source: Hutchinson News, The (KS)


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