Volume 6, Number 3, 1997

Blanketing the Hubble

Perched on a catwalk high above the NASA clean room at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., senior engineer Mark Neuman, EG '87, points at the life-sized mockup of the Hubble Space Telescope and shakes his head in wonder.

"Look at the size of that thing!" says the 31-year-old employee of Orbital Sciences Corp., which is located just down the street from the center. "Can you imagine trying to lift that immense payload into space?"

From the catwalk, observers can look down on two, 35-ton cranes that loom high above the Hubble mockup. Meanwhile, the entire area hums with a steady sound of high-tech filter-panels plucking molecule-sized particles from the super-clean air.

The clean room is where the incredibly sensitive instruments that form the Hubble's "eye on outer space" were assembled, before being loaded onto the shuttle to rendezvous with the telescope 300 miles above the Earth.

"It's just an amazing process," says Neuman. "They have to filter out even the tiniest particles, because if even one of them gets on that lens, it's going to show up in all the pictures."

Celebration...and then, a sudden crisis

Only 10 years after graduating from UD with a degree in mechanical engineering, Neuman is enjoying an award-winning design career capped by one of the most coveted citations in the U.S. space program-the Astronauts' Personal Achievement Award, or the "Silver Snoopy."

Neuman was presented with his Snoopy by astronaut Mark Lee, in recognition of his contributions in helping design tools and carrier boxes for the shuttle astronauts who successfully repaired the Hubble space telescope in 1993. This mission corrected a major construction flaw in the huge telescope's imaging system by installing what amounted to a giant contact lens and bringing America's eye on the heavens into crystal-clear focus.

Neuman says he feels enormous pride in knowing that his NASA engineering team played a key role in successfully upgrading the $2 billion telescope.

That team also made headlines around the world last February, when the Space Shuttle Discovery successfully docked with the orbiting telescope 300 miles above Earth so a team of spacewalking astronauts could install new instruments worth more than $200 million.

"We were popping the champagne," says Neuman, remembering the euphoria he and his fellow engineers experienced after the mission's astronauts lavishly praised their custom-designed space tools and cargo containers. "But, no sooner had we finished toasting each other," he says, "than the word came down from the brass that we had a serious problem with the thermal blankets wrapped around the telescope." (The blankets are designed to protect sensitive instruments from the heat of the sun.)

A victory for the Tiger Team

"What followed was a huge struggle to find a way to fix the blankets, right on the spot," Neuman recalls, comparing the situation to a key scene in the recent Hollywood smash, Apollo 13. "Remember that scene where they dump all that stuff on the engineer's desk, and they tell him: 'This is what they have in the crew cabin. You have to make a rescue device out of these things, and nothing else, within the next few hours.' That's exactly what happened" to Neuman and his team.

In February, when the astronauts walked around the telescope, they found tears in the thermal blankets and saw that layers of the covers were flaking off. They were afraid the instruments would be damaged by heat and that the flakes would drift into the telescope's field of view.

"We quickly determined what the astronauts had to work with-some extra blankets in the crew cabin, along with about 35 feet of parachute cord-and NASA mission control in Houston formed what was called 'The Tiger Team.'" Neuman was placed in charge of the procedural part of it.

"Our assignment was to take these materials and show the astronauts how to rig a new thermal blanket to cover up what was flaking away."

What followed, says Neuman, were 12-hour days and ever-increasing pressure, as the shuttle commanders waited for The Tiger Team to give them a solution.

The team first designed a replacement system that, when tested, would have required 37 feet of cord, and there were only 35 feet in the cabin. So, the engineers tried again.

The solution, says Neuman, was decidedly not high-tech. "I wound up using a really nifty knot-the tent-line hitch-that I'd learned on vacation at my brother-in-law's beach cottage.

"So, we sent our solution up via fax. We said, 'We want one of you guys to do a little arts and crafts project.' The next day, they took the whole thing out on their space walk, and they used it to cover up some of the worst tears. And, it worked!" Neuman says.

The engineer of rock 'n' roll?

In the fall of 1983, when he arrived on the Newark campus to study mechanical engineering, the banking executive's son from suburban Baltimore had dazzled more than one science teacher with his grasp of physics and chemistry, and he seemed utterly determined to accomplish his dream of some day working in the NASA space program.

So, how did the hard-charging Neuman kick off his college career? He organized a rock 'n' roll band-Shakedown-and started looking for gigs at nearby clubs, playing at dances in the Perkins Student Center, doing some charity shows and writing a few songs along the way. "It was great fun. I still get together frequently with a couple of the guys to play our music, even today," he says.

Married and the father of two, Neuman says he wouldn't have missed out on his rock 'n' roll experience for anything, although, he says, "there never was any doubt that mechanical engineering would be my future. I worked pretty hard as an undergrad at Delaware, and I was very lucky. I had some great teachers and courses there.

"In my senior year, for example, we had this really good mechanical design course where we worked with industry partners who came to campus with problems to solve. I worked with an food processing company, and we designed and fabricated a robotic scrubber that would go into these large holding tanks and clean them. The device we created was basically a big box with a sampler and a cleaning arm that would come out and clean the sides of the tank. It was simple...but it worked.

"I really can't say enough about those kinds of real-world, collaborative projects between the students and outside industry. They're exciting, and they promote a lot of creativity."

In search of zero gravity

After joining Orbital Sciences Corp. (then known as Fairchild Space & Defense Corp.) after graduation, Neuman soon was assisting Hubble astronauts with their "zero gravity" dress rehearsals for their two telescope missions. They used a huge diving tank at NASA's facility in Huntsville, Ala.

"Every morning I'd put on scuba gear," explains Neuman, "and swim down 40 feet or so to help the astronauts learn how to use all the space tools we were devising for them.

"What we did was build a system of weights and air pockets into their space suits, so that they achieved zero gravity underwater. They just hung there motionless. And, in this way, we could pretty much duplicate the weightlessness of outer space.

"Later on, after the first Hubble mission in '93, the astronauts told us that when they were up there in orbit, everything looked just the way it had in the underwater tank-except there were no bubbles! That was one of the nicest compliments our engineering crew received," he says.

The future

"As good as the pictures from Hubble have been since the first repair mission in 1993, they're nothing compared to what you're going to be seeing in the future," says Frank Cepollina, Goddard Space Flight Center servicing manager. "If all of these new instruments work as promised, the images from the Hubble should be nothing less than astonishing." Neuman agrees.

"There's no doubt that the Hubble is already giving us our deepest look into outer space in the entire history of the human race," he says. "So far, the biggest single accomplishment for the telescope has been its confirmation of black holes. Scientists have been assuming they're out there for years, but until Hubble, we had no way to confirm that. Now, with the Hubble's deep field view, there's no longer any doubt.

"We're going to be seeing some amazing things up ahead," says Neuman. "I'm proud of the accomplishments our NASA engineering crew has been able to achieve so far, and I'm thrilled to be part of a project that my grandchildren will be studying in their history books.

"It's a great time to be an engineer!"

-Tom Nugent