Sometimes all the high-tech training is nothing compared to what Uncle Frank and a big screwdriver can teach an astronaut about removing stubborn parts, even 350 miles above Earth.
During a news conference in orbit Wednesday, Atlantis astronaut Mike Massimino credited a colorful relative from Long Island for showing him what a yank will do when a part just won’t budge.
During five consecutive — and at times frustrating — spacewalks to repair the 19-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, astronauts from the shuttle Atlantis revived two dead science instruments, installed a more powerful camera and a second spectrograph, and replaced batteries, gyroscopes and insulation.
But the job that gave astronauts the most trouble was a stuck hand rail on Hubble’s once-dead spectrograph.
Massimino was trying to unscrew a bolt on the hand rail during Sunday’s spacewalk. After more than an hour with no luck, NASA engineers on the ground told Massimino to just pull it off. So Massimino recalled his Uncle Frank, a balky car oil filter, a big screwdriver and some brute force.
“Out of all the education I’ve had, it was thinking of my Uncle Frank, and I won’t tell you what he was saying,” Massimino said. “I didn’t use that language, but he yanked on that thing until he broke that thing free.”
“That pretty much was my experience that helped me with that (spectrograph) repair,” Massimino said.
Weather could delay landing
Also Wednesday, Mission Control told Atlantis that its heat shield was safe for landing, but stormy weather in Florida could force Friday’s landing to be rescheduled. Astronauts have started conserving power in case they have to stay in space a day or two longer.
The energy savings will allow Atlantis to stay in orbit through Monday if necessary, said shuttle program deputy manager LeRoy Cain.
If landing attempts are scrubbed Friday, NASA can try again in Florida on Saturday — and if that doesn’t work, they have several options for a later landing.
Astronauts had Wednesday off after releasing the Hubble a day earlier. They told reporters they were looking forward to coming home after the 11-day mission.
“I really can’t wait to bring Atlantis home to Kennedy Space Center,” commander Scott Altman said before Mission Control alerted him about the weather.
They said their upgrades of the telescope showed how important it is to have humans and machines work together in space.
“What we’ve done is give Hubble five or maybe 10 more years of life,” chief Hubble repairman John Grunsfeld said.
President makes a call
Later Wednesday, President Barack Obama called Atlantis, commending them on their dedication. “Like a lot of Americans, I’ve been watching with amazement the gorgeous images that you’ve been sending back,” the president told the astronauts.
Obama said his young daughters are fans of Hubble's images as well: “They’ve got some images ... that they prize whenever we talk about space, and so by allowing Hubble to continue on its journey, you’ve really allowed all of us to continue on our journey for growth and exploration.”
The president jokingly asked the astronauts to check that someone was taking care of his home back in Chicago. “Did you guys see my house?” he said. “I’m trying to figure out if my lawn is getting mowed there. I haven’t been back in a couple months.”
Obama still has to nominate a new administrator for the space agency, and met on Tuesday with Charles Bolden, a former shuttle commander and retired Marine major general who is considered the top prospect. Obama told Atlantis' crew that he would select a candidate "soon."
“I can’t disclose it to you because I’ve got to have some hoopla on the announcement back here on Earth. But I can assure you that it’s a high priority of mine to restore that sense of wonder that space can provide,” Obama said.
The crew asked Obama whether any of them in space was a candidate.
“I’m not going to give you any hints,” he said with a laugh.