By Steve Koppes
Photo courtesy of NASA

University astronaut-alumnus John Grunsfeld calls himself “a magnet for tasks which have never been done before in space.”

Grunsfeld, SM’84, PhD’88, was referring to a variety of assignments he undertook on two previous space shuttle flights, along with the ones he will face on his next mission, to refurbish and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. Last summer, he and his crewmates were preparing to make a series of five spacewalks in five days to service the telescope, named after another Chicago alumnus, Edwin Hubble.

Most people know Hubble, SB,1910, PhD,1917, as a famed astronomer, but he also starred as a forward on the Maroons’ Big Ten champion basketball teams of 1907–08 and 1908–09. As Grunsfeld prepared for his fifth space shuttle flight since 1995, he pondered how best to deflate a century-old ball that Hubble had tossed around in a 1909 victory against Indiana University.

The challenge: Find a way to compactly stow the old pigskin, which to everyone’s surprise lacks an air valve, aboard the space shuttle Atlantis for its scheduled launch May 11. The problem unfolded last summer in a series of e-mails between Grunsfeld and Michael Turner, the Bruce and Diana Rauner Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

“It’s a cosmic mystery as to how the ball was filled, and now for me how to drain it,” Grunsfeld told Turner, who had borrowed the basketball from the Department of Physical Education & Athletics for its orbital flight. Grunsfeld plans to return the basketball personally to the University after the mission, when it will go on display at the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center.

“We couldn’t find a valve to deflate it, so we will leave it to the rocket scientists to figure out how to flatten it,” Turner told Grunsfeld. It presented another challenge of the kind that Grunsfeld relishes, but would never have anticipated as an astronaut.

Early Affinity for Space

As a child growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Grunsfeld drew inspiration from the Gemini and Apollo space flights of the 1960s. Even before the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, he had decided to become an astronaut. As a child, he would pretend to walk out to the launch pad carrying a vacuum cleaner with hose, a household substitute for the liquid-cooling units he had seen on television.

After Grunsfeld’s family moved to Chicago’s north suburbs, he would fix malfunctioning instruments in the Highland Park High School chemistry laboratory. Fixing such equipment is similar to the work he does on the Hubble Telescope. “I’ve just refined it a little bit further,” he said.

Grunsfeld is a veteran of four previous shuttle missions, and performed spacewalks during the last two—Columbia in 2002 and Discovery in 1999—to upgrade the Hubble Telescope. A former physics student at the University, Grunsfeld also flew with the eyepiece of a telescope that Hubble had peered through at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., and the cover of Hubble’s doctoral dissertation.

Cosmic Mystery

Five weeks before scheduled launch, Grunsfeld punctured the basketball with a hypodermic needle. “Nothing happened, no air hissing out, or any air transfer at all as I compressed the ball,” he said. Grunsfeld assumed that he had punctured the pigskin, but not the underlying air bladder. And yet more punctures with different needles in different locations also failed to deflate the ball.

Finally, with the University’s permission, Grunsfeld resorted to cutting a small incision into the ball. “To my astonishment, I discovered that there is no bladder, and no pressurized air. The basketball was filled with an organic fiber packing,” he said.

Grunsfeld plans to reshape the ball while in orbit and gently pass it around to crewmates during a photo-op. The moment should provide a memorable, light-hearted counterpoint to his usual orbital workload of marathon spacewalks and Hubble Telescope repairs.

“It’s been a glorious career, and I’ve been incredibly privileged to fly in space and to work on the Hubble Space Telescope,” he said.

Originally published on May 4, 2009.