As we marvel at the Hubble Space Telescope, celebrating its 25th anniversary this spring, readers may be interested in the little-known story of the young Minnesota-born space engineer who helped save it.
Parents of some of today’s sometimes wandering young people might also take heart from this story of a young man who took some time before finding his place.
I know about all this because I am the father of this space engineer, my youngest son, Greg.
We all know about how Hubble almost became a billion-dollar bust when it was first shot beyond the atmosphere. The first photos it sent back to Earth, intended to show never-before-seen galaxies and other astronomical wonders, were disastrously fuzzy and unfocused. After considering ditching Hubble in the sea as garbage and returning it to Cape Canaveral for repairs, NASA officials decided to try and fix it as it orbited.
Enter Greg and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Colorado. If older readers wonder whether Ball might be the company that got its start making glass canning jars, they are correct. Times have changed.
Ball had bid on the Hubble itself but lost out to another firm. Now it was being called in to make corrections. The main problem was the incorrectly ground, 8-foot-diameter mirror that reflected the sights of outer space into Hubble’s cameras. Greg and his team, working with NASA, created a set of small mirrors to focus the reflections properly. As one scientist put it, Ball “made a set of eyeglasses” for Hubble.
The final repair package sent up to Hubble was “about the size of a phone booth,” Greg says. When “eyeglasses” and other fixes were installed by astronauts, the Hubble was dramatically reborn.
Greg doesn’t talk much about the fix. Minnesota reticence? Security concerns? Uncertain. Once he did call us from Colorado and alerted his mother, Barbara, and me that the feds might be coming around our south Minneapolis neighborhood asking about him. Why? I asked. Higher security clearance, he said. “What is going on?” I asked. “If I told you anything more, I would have to kill you,” he said, I think facetiously.
We always have considered Greg a bit different, not linear. As any good Minnesota kid should, he loved ice hockey. Once, in the penalty box as a youngster, the man in charge asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. Without a pause, Greg answered, “Go to London and be a jewel thief.” We call that his James Bond period.
After graduating from high school, he followed an older brother to college at a small New Hampshire school. He spent his only year there majoring in potting clay and playing hockey. Not auspicious. He then came home, enrolled at Macalester College, took some tough science courses and knocked them dead.
A new beginning? Not quite.
Mountain climbing became his new passion. He began by conquering Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Then on to the Rockies and the Tetons and, finally, the sheer faces of Yosemite in California. He was recruited for an expedition to the Himalayas in Nepal, but that collapsed when two of the organizers fell off a mountain; one was killed and the other severely injured.
Greg was living out of his van, working as a chimney sweep and carpenter, future unknown to us.
But along the way, he met Sue Nakaoka near Boulder, a rock climber and physical therapist. They became a pair, married and Greg graduated from the University of Colorado, mechanical engineering degree in hand.
He now works for a space program associated with the University of Colorado. One of his ventures orbited the moon, analyzing the mysterious clouds that surprised the Apollo astronauts. Another, the MAVEN, launched in 2013, reached Mars last September and orbits the Red Planet, testing the atmosphere and looking for signs of water.
He still plays hockey, but not on ice — bad knees. He plays street hockey with neighborhood youngsters like he once was.
Sometimes there is a knock on the door. When Sue answers, a tyke asks, “Can Greg come out and play?” So he does.
Maybe one of the next space engineers is among them. Hockey can do that.
Frank Wright is a retired Star Tribune journalist.