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NASA Retirees, Volunteers Refurbish Groundbreaking ‘Astro’ Spacelab Flight Hardware for Display in US Space & Rocket Center, Smithsonian

Press Release From: Marshall Space Flight Center
Posted: Saturday, August 7, 2021

NASA and space enthusiasts who fondly remember the era of Spacelab are getting ready to welcome back an old friend.

When NASA launched its Astro-1 and Astro-2 Spacelab missions in 1990 and 1995, the complex array of synchronized telescopic imagers observed stars, quasars, supernovas, and other astronomical objects. More than a quarter-century later, a group of NASA volunteers and their industry partners are refurbishing the landmark hardware and preparing it for public display.

The Astro Restoration Project is funded by retirees and commercial supporters. Participants work in donated space at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, returning the historic Spacelab payload to pristine condition.

Once complete, it will be displayed at the Space & Rocket Center for at least the next two years. Thereafter, it will move to the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum annex at Dulles International Airport in Washington, where it may be seen – alongside Space Shuttle Discovery – by an estimated 60,000 daily fliers from all over the world.

“It is so exciting to see this restoration project come together, ensuring this important hardware will inspire our children and generations still to come,” said Tia Ferguson, director of the space systems department in the Engineering Directorate at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Astro was among her first hands-on engineering tasks when she joined the agency in 1990. “This has been a truly heroic labor of love by passionate engineers and team members.”

The search for Astro 

Astro’s journey back to life hasn’t been an easy one, said project lead Scott Vangen, a 37-year NASA veteran who retired from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in 2019. An electrical engineer during Spacelab, he’d even stood ready to fly on STS-67 himself as an alternate payload specialist-astronaut.

The restoration team knew the three flight telescopes had gone back to the principal investigators, he said. The Instrument Pointing System had been claimed by the Smithsonian for display at the Udvar-Hazy Space Science Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

“We knew some of Astro’s hardware went to government surplus auctions in Huntsville and at the Cape, and other pieces were still in storage at Kennedy, but numerous other vital pieces of hardware were unaccounted for,” Vangen said.

It happens, added his project partner, former NASA mechanical engineer Mike Haddad, who worked for 32 years at Kennedy and installed experiment cabling and electronics for Astro and other Spacelab and shuttle missions. He retired from NASA in 2011.

“Typically, when flight hardware is returned to Earth, NASA refits or refurbishes it for other missions, or strips and cannibalizes components for other uses,” Haddad said. In cases of unique, one-off pieces – affectionately dubbed “mission peculiar,” a lot of old hardware is auctioned off to collectors and museums, or simply sold for scrap.

But luck was on their side. Byron Bonds, who had worked on Astro as Teledyne Brown Engineering’s resident office chief engineer, was browsing in a North Alabama auction yard when he discovered Astro’s massive cruciform, the 8-foot-by-8-foot, 3,000-pound aluminum frame – designed and built by Teledyne Brown – to anchor the telescopes, pointing system, and other hardware. Not long after, on a visit to a scrapyard in Titusville, Florida, Vangen himself stumbled upon Astro’s 500-pound optical sensor package, built by a German contractor to help train the telescopes to fix on the same observation point in space.

“It was still in its original shipping box,” he marveled.

Restoring the hardware

With time and persistence, the team recovered 90% of the missing hardware – but that was just the first hurdle. Time and exposure to the elements had caused some of the hardware to deteriorate. Some pieces had become nesting sites for wasps and field mice. Still others, particularly individual brackets and fasteners, were missing altogether.

Aiding their efforts was a mission procedures log, meticulously maintained by former Astro engineer Sharolee Huet, who passed away in 2018. Her notes identified detailed drawings and schematics that broke down every component of the Astro payload.

“Preserving the hardware is somewhat academic if you don’t have the documentation,” Vangen said. “We needed the original drawings to put the pieces back together again.”

Enter Marjorie Moore, manager of Marshall’s documentation repository. When Haddad sent them Huet’s log notes, Moore and fellow Marshall documents specialist Courtney Lovell were able to scan, digitize, and email to the restoration team a total of 334 drawings and associated documents. The puzzle pieces were all falling into place.

They also had a venue to do the work thanks to Bonds, who had become their key liaison with the Smithsonian and the Space & Rocket Center. He helped secure the necessary workspace in the latter to conduct the restoration effort.

The museum’s restoration experts, well-versed in refurbishing NASA hardware – witness the massive Saturn V rocket that anchors the Davidson Center there – offered crucial insight for properly cleaning and restoring the time-worn pieces.

Dozens of civil service and contractor volunteers took part, stripping the rotted insulating blankets, gently cleaning parts with toothbrushes and pressure-washing others. Some retired Astro engineers road-tripped all the way from Florida to participate. The team even got help manufacturing replacement brackets and other small hardware elements from students in NASA’s HUNCH program, which includes more than 200 high schools nationwide and teaches students practical hardware design and fabrication techniques.

For Haddad, the moment that really sticks with him was installing Astro’s original remote acquisition units – which sent signals from the payload to the shuttle and then down to Earth – on the refurbished cruciform.

“In 1985, preparing for Astro-1, I was the one who originally installed those boxes,” he said. “Doing the same procedure 35 years later? It was like coming home.”

The value of displaying NASA’s history

The restored optical sensor package and the first of the telescopes, the Wisconsin Ultraviolet Photo Polarimeter Experiment, are slated to be reinstalled on the Astro cruciform this fall. By spring 2022, they’ll be joined by the remaining two ultraviolet telescopes to complete the configuration. Astro will remain on exhibit at the Space & Rocket Center until the Smithsonian is ready to debut its own exhibition site at Dulles.

That physical presence may be the most important aspect of the work, Vangen said. “Free-flying payloads and deployables such as Hubble rewrote the science books, but they’ll never come back to Earth, never stand on display as examples of what we can achieve,” he said. “With Astro, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to touch hardware that flew to space and into the history books.”

Like the original Spacelab missions themselves, he added, restoring Astro has been a powerful lesson in the pride and diligence of a committed team.

“Whether it’s science, engineering, flight operations, or general human experience, you always learn from what you’ve done and apply it to what comes next,” he said. “Generations to come can visit the Astro exhibit – and see firsthand what human beings are capable of doing.”

To learn more about the project, visit:

https://www.astrorestorationproject.org


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