Six days into a mission last May to repair and rehabilitate the Hubble Space Telescope, Michael J. Massimino, an astronaut, robotics expert and honorary New York City fireman, was getting ready to rip a handrail off the side of the fabled telescope.
Beneath the handrail, behind a panel secured by 111 tiny screws, was a broken spectrograph needing electronic repair to go back to its job, which included inspecting faraway planets. Dr. Massimino had trained for years to do this on-orbit “brain surgery,” but first, having stripped a crucial bolt, he would have to resort to brute force.
Dr. Massimino’s thoughts, he recalled recently over lunch in New York, flew back to his boyhood and the day his Uncle Frank couldn’t get the oil filter off his car. At one point, his father ran across the street, came back with a giant screwdriver, and punched it through the filter to get leverage to pry it off. After yanking, and cursing, “Finally he got the thing to budge,” Dr. Massimino said. “That’s what I was thinking when I was yanking on the handle on the Hubble.”
He has been reliving that moment in talks and interviews for the last year. Now, the whole world can as well.
When the Atlantis, commanded by Scott D. Altman, shipped off from Cape Canaveral, in addition to seven astronauts and thousands of pounds of tools and replacement instruments, it carried a special 575-pound Imax camera that recorded the action, including Dr. Massimino’s cosmic yank, in 3-D.
Besides bone-rattling liftoffs and astronauts goofing around in the space shuttle, the film features trips through the Hubble images themselves. In Imax and 3-D, the astronauts’ tethers brush your hair in some scenes and stars hit your face like raindrops in a summer storm in others. One scene shows a Hubble image I hadn’t seen before, of a protoplanetary disk of dust looking like a ring of hair, or a nest, surrounding a newly born star in the Orion nebula — Genesis there, maybe.
In the film’s last image, a cosmic web of light formed by the galaxies on large scale, the universe seems to glow like a crystal emerging from the dark.
Some of the scenes in the movie were converted to 3-D using digital tricks, Ms. Myers of Imax, the director, said, but about eight minutes were recorded by a single 5,400-foot roll of film in that camera in the shuttle’s cargo bay, operated remotely by the pilot, Gregory C. Johnson.
Recording left and right images on alternate frames of film running sideways through the camera at 48 frames per second, eight minutes was all the time they could capture. The Imax team spent many hours with crew members as they rehearsed the mission in a water tank to make sure they got the crucial moments.
The resulting film, Ms. Myers said, is the culmination of 25 years of flying Imax cameras on space shuttles and the training of more than 100 astronauts to run them. “We trained them to be directors in space,” she said. It is a tradition that will end with the retirement of the space shuttle next year, she said, because there is no room on the Soyuz capsules that will replace it to bring back the film packages, which are as big as a pizza box and three inches thick.
The film has made something of a media star out of Dr. Massimino, who is seen not only fixing the telescope but also conducting chatty low-key interviews with his crewmates in space. He has also been on the road promoting the film and most recently rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange.
Dr. Massimino was born in 1962 and grew up in Franklin Square on Long Island, two miles out of Queens. The son of an inspector for the New York City Fire Department, he is the kind of astronaut who would bring the home plate from Shea Stadium up in space with him. He was inspired to join the space program, he said, by the camaraderie between the astronauts in the 1983 movie “The Right Stuff,” based on the book by Tom Wolfe.
“Something about that closeness and how they stood up for each other caught my attention,” he recalled. “My real interest was not in flying but the camaraderie between a group of people and being up there and being able to see the Earth.”
Seeking a way into the program, Dr. Massimino enrolled at M.I.T., eventually emerging in 1992 with a Ph.D. in robotics. He joined NASA in 1996 and lucked out by being assigned to the fourth Hubble repair mission in 2002, on which he performed two spacewalks. He packed along all kinds of fire department and Port Authority mementoes in honor of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Last May’s mission, the last ever to the telescope, reunited Dr. Massimino with some of the 2002 crew, including Commander Altman, who had led the previous mission, and the veteran Hubble repairman John M. Grunsfeld. Among Dr. Massimino’s duties was to become the first person to use Twitter from space, as @Astro_Mike, sending down posts to more than 1.2 million followers. It was NASA’s idea, he said. “They wanted a guinea pig.”
Doing video interviews in flight was his idea, he said, inspired by a complaint by a crewmate that the one-on-one interviews done by NASA were too dry. None of the camaraderie and banter he enjoyed with his crew came through. “We’re funny and we fix things, but we were portrayed as stiffs. I wanted people to see us as people.”
“It was easy for me to do, just film stuff and send it down,” he said.
By the time the Atlantis blasted off, on May 11, Hubble was in bad shape, limping along on one 17-year-old camera and a backup data router. Five spacewalks were planned and in the end, despite years of training and engineering, none of them was easy.
One bad moment occurred out of camera range during Dr. Massimino’s first spacewalk of the mission. While he was scouring the cargo bay for a spare gyroscope to replace one that wouldn’t fit, he was carrying on his shoulder a cable harness needed to supply power for a repair of Hubble’s main camera, the Advanced Camera for Surveys.
“Somehow the hook got undone,” he recalled. “I look up and up above me I saw this harness is going away.” There was only one; without it the camera could not be repaired. He grabbed it just in time.
Dr. Massimino’s worst moment, however, came two days later when he could not unscrew the last bolt holding the handrail that was blocking the broken spectrograph. “That was a nightmare for me,” he said. “I felt horrible.”
“Whether we were going to find life on other planets was now down to zero.”
Luckily, when he yanked, the handrail came off cleanly. “I went from the lowest I had ever been to the happiest I had ever been outside a spaceship,” he said.
In the end, the mission succeeded brilliantly. Within weeks of their letting the telescope back loose into space, one of the new cameras installed on Hubble recorded images of the most distant galaxies ever seen, from an era only 500 million years after the Big Bang.
With the shuttle program set to wind down this year or next, Dr. Massimino said there was little chance of him getting to space again anytime soon.
Seeing the Earth from space, he said, was his favorite activity, and watching the movie brings it back. “Those were the most memorable moments of my life. You don’t want to forget.”
As for the stubborn handrail? Dr. Massimino said it was now in an office at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where the engineers in charge of Hubble work.
“They let me keep it for a day, but I had to give it back,” he said.