Former NOAA Administrator, Astronaut Sullivan to Write Book on Satellite Servicing

Former NOAA Administrator, Astronaut Sullivan to Write Book on Satellite Servicing

Former NOAA Administrator and NASA astronaut Kathy Sullivan has been selected by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) as the 2017 Charles A. Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History.   She will spend her one year in that position writing a book about satellite servicing as a philosophy and practice.  As a space shuttle astronaut, she not only was the first American woman to conduct a spacewalk, but was on the shuttle mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, the poster child of satellite servicing.

Sullivan resigned as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator of NOAA on January 20 at the end of the Obama Administration.  An oceanographer by training, she has a long career in aerospace including her years as a NASA astronaut (1978-1993), president and CEO of the interactive science center COSI Columbus (Ohio), Director of Ohio State’s Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education, and an earlier stint at NOAA as chief scientist.  

Kathy Sullivan.   Photo Credit:  NOAA

The Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History is a competitive one-year fellowship for senior scholars who are writing or plan to write books in aerospace history.  According to the NASM press release, Sullivan’s book on satellite servicing will discuss its “philosophy and practice, with attention to the creation of design features, tools, procedures, training, tests and evaluation.”

Sullivan flew on three space shuttle missions:  STS 41-G in 1984 when she became the first American woman to make a spacewalk, just months after Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman ever to do it; STS-31 in 1990 that deployed Hubble; and STS-45 in 1992, the first Spacelab mission devoted to studying planet Earth.

Hubble is renowned today for its spectacular images of the universe and groundbreaking science.  It was the first space telescope designed to be serviced by astronauts, which turned out to be a really good thing because its mirror was deformed.  Astronauts on the first servicing mission essentially fitted the telescope with a special pair of glasses that made it see properly.  Over the course of four more servicing missions, the instruments and major components, including the solar arrays, were replaced.  Launched almost 27 years ago, it is still returning valuable data because of its ability to be serviced.

Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), however, is not designed to be serviced and debate continues about whether it should have been and whether future space telescopes should be.  NASA has been working on developing robotic satellite servicing technology through the RESTORE-L program at Goddard Space Flight Center for more than a decade and recently elevated those efforts from an “office” to a “division.”   NASA efforts are aimed at servicing satellites in low Earth orbit.  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has its own Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) technology development program.   Orbital ATK and Space Systems Loral also are working on satellite servicing technologies.

The idea has many skeptics in terms of whether it could ever become a commercially viable enterprise and others question whether the government is competing with the private sector in developing the technologies, so there is much for Sullivan’s book to elucidate.

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