WICHITA, Kan. — In 1961, after NASA shot Alan Shepard into space, a 9-year-old boy named Steve Hawley asked his mother to buy him a dime-store telescope.
Several years and several telescopes later, he asked his mother and father to help pay for college. To study astronomy.
Some parents might ask how staring at stars would get him a job. But Bernie and Jeanne Hawley said yes.
Steve Hawley became the astronomer and astronaut who used the robot arm of the space shuttle Discovery in 1990 to lift the Hubble Space Telescope out of the cargo bay while flying in orbit at 17,398 mph.
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Hubble weighed 11 tons. At 43 feet it was the length of a large school bus. And Steve Hawley, from Salina, Kan., parked it expertly in space, 360 miles above Earth.
The Hubble has made what scientists say are the most astonishing discoveries in human history. It’s still up there making more.
Hawley has a unique relationship with the Hubble. He deployed it, and repaired it years later in space. Now he is one of the long list of scientists who get to tap on an office keyboard and tell Hubble what to look for.
His brother John Hawley, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Virginia, can list many other historic Hubble discoveries off the top of his head:
• The age of the universe: 13.7 billion years.
• Vivid, compelling evidence that everything in creation started with a Big Bang.
• Compelling evidence that the universe is expanding, and rapidly.
• Evidence that there is “dark energy,” a force driving that accelerated expansion, just as Einstein briefly theorized.
It’s the story of us, he said — our home, our universe, how it all started, how vast and beautiful it all is.
“How small we are,” John Hawley said. “How vulnerable we are.”
And one day, John Hawley said, the Hubble showed one other astounding thing: Scientists pointed it at a section of what looked like black, empty space, and let the camera exposure stay open for a long time.
The photograph this produced, the “Hubble Deep Field,” shows thousands of galaxies, glowing faintly in spirals and wisps, tinged with faint white and yellow colors. The universe, scientists extrapolated from that photo, has more than a trillion galaxies, each with trillions of stars.
The size of creation is almost beyond comprehension.
“All these things were theories before,” John Hawley said. “Now we know.”
John Hawley is Steve Hawley’s younger brother. When they were kids in Salina, Steve would buy a newer and bigger telescope “and pass the hand-me-down telescope to me,” John said
One day John Hawley went to parents Jeanne and Bernie and told them he wanted to study astronomy and physics, and not at the affordable University of Kansas, where Steve went. John wanted to attend Haverford, a private college outside Philadelphia.
The family still didn’t have much money. Bernie was a minister; Jeanne taught piano lessons at home.
“I’m sure they had real reservations,” he said. “But they didn’t bat an eye.”
John watched, with his heart in his throat, his brother’s first attempted launch in 1984, when Discovery’s engine stalled on the launchpad and someone on the radio said “fire.” He knew, before the Challenger blew up two years later, how dangerous all this was.
And then six years later, he kept tabs from Earth while his brother parked the greatest science experiment in history into orbit.
“I talked with him after,” John said. “He said he had the worst headache he’d ever had in his life.”
You could argue, John said, that the smartest Hawleys were Bernie and Jeanne, for saying yes to childhood dreams. But John, last year, along with a collaborator, won the Shaw Prize, which Steve says is the Asian version of the Nobel Prize. John split a $1 million prize with his collaborator.
“People used to ask him if he was related to me,” Steve wrote in an email. “Now they ask me if I am related to him!”
The textbook that John wrote about the universe uses color photos shot by the satellite his brother put into space.
In 1997, astronaut Joe Tanner rode Discovery into space and watched fellow astronaut Steve Hawley grab the Hubble with the robot arm.
Hawley brought it into the cargo bay so they could upgrade components. After that, Hawley redeployed it, and used the robot arm — with Tanner riding it — to do more work on the Hubble during a spacewalk.
Hawley by that time was the most respected astronaut at NASA, Tanner said.
“His nickname was GPC Number 6, because the other five GPCs were the five general-purpose computers on the shuttles,” Tanner said. “He was that brilliant.”
“I looked it up — NASA picked him for the astronaut program when he was only 26,” Tanner said. “How does anybody do that? And how does anybody get a Ph.D. by age 26? He’d done that, too.”
The biggest reason NASA sent Steve Hawley into space five times was that he was adept at keeping the peace between two astronaut tribes who didn’t always get along, Tanner said.
NASA sent two kinds of astronauts up on shuttles, Tanner said: the pilot-engineers, “accustomed to working in teams to run the operations of flight,” and the scientists, who had spent years working alone on Ph.D. dissertations on astronomy, medicine or other fields.
“Dr. Stevie was both,” Tanner said. “He bridged that barrier like no other.”
Hawley said he worked hard at that.
“When I went off to a meeting with the operations people, the science people knew that I cared about the science as much as they did,” Hawley said.
Why pay for your son or daughter to go to college to study astronomy? What kind of job can they get with that?
Why study physics, or black holes, or the theory of relativity?
Steve Hawley says he’s heard all those arguments. They were sometimes directed at him.
“Not my parents, but others told me that there was not much chance of finding a job in astronomy, but I didn’t care,” he wrote in an email. “Because it was what I wanted to study. I figured if that plan didn’t work out I’d be able to come up with something else.
“That’s also the reason I applied to be an astronaut. I didn’t really think I’d get the job, but I didn’t want to go through my life wondering if I could have done it if I had only tried.
“That’s advice I give to young people when I get a chance: Find something you’re passionate about.”