Image: John Grunsfeld
Self-described "Hubble-hugger" John Grunsfeld, seen here during last May's Hubble servicing mission, is leaving the astronaut corps to take a post at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
updated 1/8/2010 8:01:51 PM ET 2010-01-09T01:01:51

Astronaut John Grunsfeld, famous for visiting the Hubble Space Telescope three times on space shuttle missions, has left NASA to help lead the observatory's science work.

Grunsfeld has taken up the post of deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which runs science operations for Hubble.

A self-identified "Hubble-hugger," Grunsfeld, 51, recounted his most recent trip to the observatory to an audience of astronomers this week at the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C.

"The Hubble story is just beginning," he said Wednesday. "We've reinvented the telescope."

Grunsfeld and six other astronauts travelled to Hubble aboard the space shuttle Atlantis' STS-125 mission in May 2009. It was the fifth and final scheduled repair trip to overhaul the 19-year-old telescope.

"I was just so happy that we'd gotten everything done and we hadn't broken the telescope, as far as we knew," he said.

In fact, they did a lot more than that. The astronauts installed two new instruments on the observatory, including a new wide-field camera, and replaced some ailing parts such as batteries and gyroscopes. The new-and-improved Hubble should be running well through at least 2014, NASA said.

Grunsfeld, who also participated in two prior Hubble servicing missions, said he feels a personal connection to the instrument. After his last spacewalk, he gave one last pat to the telescope.

"I said, 'Hubble, you're the man,'" he recounted.

Grunsfeld is an astronomer by training who was selected by NASA as an astronaut in 1992. A veteran of five spaceflights total, he has logged over 58 days in space. NASA announced Grunsfeld's departure from the space agency earlier this week.

"During the past 18 years, John has been a true asset to the agency," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut who few on the STS-31 mission that deployed the Hubble. "Some have called him the chief Hubble repairman, but I call him a friend and wish him the best in his new endeavor."

In his new post, Grunsfeld will help oversee the scientists who work with the observatory, and the selection of science projects that get chosen for precious Hubble time.

"This is a very human endeavor," Grunsfeld said. "The Hubble telescope doesn't discover anything. Astronomers, people, using the telescope, discover things."

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