Wednesday 6 January 2010

There have been only two standing ovations at the AAS in his memory, said Society president John Huchra, and the other heralded a presenter who later won the Nobel Prize.

That’s how astronaut John Grunsfeld’s invited talk ended Wednesday morning.  Grunsfeld flew on the recent Atlantis mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, whose newest photos have renewed for many the awe Hubble images inspire.  Despite significant obstacles, including stuck parts and having to loosen several dozen tiny screws while wearing spacesuit gloves, the mission was a smashing success, a fact the astronaut knew full well:  “I’m pleased that I’m still able to show my face to the AAS,” he said after Huchra presented him.

The stunning photos Grunsfeld showed of space walks and reflections of the Earth in his suit visor, paired with his compelling narrative, would be enough to enchant any audience.  This group had another reason to be spellbound, though.  Grunsfeld brought the taste of Out There to several hundred Earth-bound stargazers who will never experience firsthand the “wonderful environment” of space the astronaut described.  He had been there, whispered the charge in the room.  Moreover, he and the other astronauts had risked their lives for the science that defined these people.  

Grunsfeld acknowledged the onus with grace.  “If we’re going to do great things, we’re going to have to take some risks,” he said, quoting NASA administrator and former astronaut Charles Bolden, Jr.  

Grunsfeld made his mutual respect for his listeners clear, too.  “This [Astronomy] is a very human endeavor,” he said.  “When I talk to the public I remind people that Hubble doesn’t discover anything.  Astronomers discover.”

When asked how to encourage the rising generation to pursue science, the astronaut said keeping students' interest in science and math through middle school was key.  If their interest survived those years, kids would stick with it, he explained. 

"There seems to be a reticence to expose kids to real science," he lamented.  It's not too hard for them, he said, a fact made clear to him and his colleagues every time a student calls them up to ask complicated questions, such as for a clarification of "an obscure metric around black holes."  "These kids are a lot smarter than we are," he concluded.