Solving the "Trouble with Hubble" -- An Exercise in #Improv

The Hubble Space Telescope in a picture snapped by a Servicing Mission 4 crewmember just after the Space Shuttle Atlantis captured Hubble with its robotic arm on May 13, 2009, beginning the mission to upgrade and repair the telescope. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute conducts Hubble science operations. Goddard is responsible for HST project management, including mission and science operations, servicing missions, and all associated development activities. Our family's Sunday night tradition is pizza in the basement and a TV show together. We mix it up between Mythbusters, So You Think You Can Dance, Dirty Jobs, and nature/science shows. Sunday it was NOVA's episode "Invisible Universe Revealed," commemorating the Hubble Space Telescope on its 25th birthday.

I had no idea how much scientific knowledge I take for granted was made possible by Hubble: the age of the universe (13.7 billion years), for example, or the fact that black holes lie at the center of galaxies.

I remember the Hubble debacle. It didn't work when it was first placed in space--the images were blurry and useless. I also recall lots of self-satisfied comments about how it just goes to show that "the government can't do anything right." According to the NOVA program, however, it was a government contractor, a private company, that made the flawed mirror, that did not let NASA view their manufacturing process since it was proprietary, and that certified the mirror as flawless and ready for installation on Hubble. That's not what this post is about, but ahem.

Anyway, I was struck once again how much improvisation is at the center of problem-solving. (We think of improv as something musicians or actors do, but see the movie Apollo 11 for a master class on improv in engineering.)

First, the woman who helped spearhead the project, Nancy Grace Roman, the so-called Mother of the Hubble, wasn't even supposed to be on that project. She began her career in academia, and as a woman in the 1950s, couldn't get tenure. Instead, "In 1959 when NASA was formed, one of the men there asked whether I knew anyone who would like to set up a program in space astronomy. And I decided the idea of influencing space astronomy for 50 years was just more than I could resist, so I took the job."

What Roman demonstrates is what theologian Samuel Wells has called overaccepting---of taking what is offered and adding to it. Instead of beating her head against the wall of academia to try to get tenure, or accepting the crumbs from their table in the form of less prestigious positions, she pivots. She pursues a job at NASA... and the rest is history.

Nancy Roman, now 89 years old. Respect!

What I like about improv as a metaphor is it doesn't fall back on some chintzy-cheap theology that says "See?! It's a good thing she didn't get tenure, otherwise she wouldn't have gotten a job at NASA! It was all meant to be." Sorry, sexism in the academy is not and was never "meant to be." After listening to this interview, I have no doubt she would have kicked butt and taken names in a university setting, because that's the kind of woman she is. Instead, what Roman demonstrates is a posture of overaccepting one's circumstances (aka saying "yes-and"), even if they aren't ones we might have chosen. Just because we say yes to something doesn't mean we like it. It means we've faced reality and refused to let it be a "No" that defeats us.

Second: There's an improv game I've done as both a participant and as a leader, called "What Else Could This Be?" The premise is simple: you pass around an object--a pool noodle, or an eggbeater--and ask people to pantomime another use for it. (The pool noodle can be a set of horns; the eggbeater, a very tiny unicycle.) Indeed the church I used to serve turned its underutilized sanctuary balcony into a worship space for children because we asked the question "what else could this be?"

I was reminded of this game when optical engineer James Crocker described a breakthrough--THE breakthrough--in fixing Hubble. They had discussed all kinds of scenarios and solutions, most of which stunk, and the ones that didn't stink weren't feasible because of the logistics of working in orbit, which means they stunk in a different way. After a long discouraging day in meetings, Crocker went back to the hotel to take a shower--and noticed one of these:

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The shower head can be raised and lowered on a bar. And that's where the idea came from to put corrective mirrors on robotic arms that could be extended into the telescope and retracted again.

That story is so amazing, it may be too good to be true. But in any case, it's a great twist on "what else could this be?"

Third: Improv is a process of letting go and taking risks--which may be the same thing when you get down to it. Astronaut Mike Massimino was one of those charged with giving Hubble some final tweaks in 2009. Unfortunately, a handrail got in the way of some of their repairs, and they realized they'd have to pry it off. Folks back home did a simulation, and the astronauts on the Shuttle did what they could to cut down on the number of shards that would fly when they removed it, and then... they let 'er rip.

The handrail had to go, but what a chance they took! But it was their only option.

It should also be said--improv is not the same as spontaneity. Astronaut Story Musgrave (what a name!) and the team that did the original Hubble repair spent 20 months preparing for their mission, including 400 hours underwater simulating zero-G. Musgrave called their process choreography, a "ballet." But that, too, is part of improv, and life. You prepare, you do your work, you think through different scenarios, and you practice, not because you expect everything to go according to plan, but because you know it won't, and you'd better be ready.

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For more writings on improvisation, click here.

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Hubble photo credit: Hubble Space Telescope via photopin (license)