Peering into Space

Meet the man who’s devoted his career to NASA’s pioneering Hubble Space Telescope.

Jim Jeletic EE’84 was sitting in his Hill House dorm room freshman year when he got a letter from his mother.

Those were exciting times for Jeletic, a computer science and engineering major who’d grown up in a generation enraptured by the American space program. The maiden voyage of Space Shuttle Columbia occurred that week in 1981, and knowing Jeletic’s voracious appetite for all things space, his mother, Phyllis, would clip out and send news stories to aid his pre-internet scouring for info. This Newsweek clipping, which Jeletic still has, led with the countdown to Columbia. But the bottom of it contained a far more kismet item.

“They’re building this large space telescope that’s going to be named Hubble that’s going to see seven times further into the universe than we’ve ever seen before, and I thought, Wow is that cool. I wonder what they’re going to see,” Jeletic recalls. “Now I can tell you what we saw.”

Jeletic has worked at NASA for three-and-a-half decades, the last 21 years on the Hubble Space Telescope team. The seven-year-old who watched the moon landing on television in his suburban Pittsburgh home, who clutched the Associated Press’s hardcover book about the lunar landing, Footprints on the Moon, as his prized possession, now shares the discoveries from one of mankind’s most enlightening pieces of space technology.

As the deputy project manager for Hubble, Jeletic has been involved in all parts of the telescope’s operation since 1998. The observing process was fully automated in 2011, so Jeletic’s role now mainly entails public outreach, giving tours of mission control at the Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and engaging with the public at events across the country and through social media. He’s a public face in media appearances and a go-to voice on Hubble’s distinguished history.

It’s fitting both for how Jeletic’s career started and the storybook arc Hubble has lived. Jeletic began at NASA after graduation, following a career on the Penn track and cross country teams. (He returns annually for Penn Relays, as a volunteer official.) He rose to become the codirector of NASA’s Software Engineering Lab, developing applications to visualize flight dynamics—basically rendering NASA’s data into real-time maps to illustrate parameters like altitude and location. His work earned seven NASA innovation awards, some of the technology entering the private sector via tech transfer.

These days, Jeletic helps the public visualize what Hubble sees, in terms more analog and visceral. Goddard includes a 1:5 scale model of the 44-foot, 27,000-pound spacecraft as well as instruments that have returned from orbit and illustrations of the scientific principles at play. Surrounded by poster-sized images the craft has beamed back, Jeletic puts in practical terms what the technology can do.

Hubble’s story needs little embellishment. Funded in 1977 and slated for a 1983 launch, the project was beset by bureaucratic squabbles and the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. When it reached orbit in 1990, its main mirror, the most precise in the world at 94.5 inches in diameter and 1,800 pounds, was discovered to be ground incorrectly, leading to aberrations that ruined data. It required adjustments to all of the instruments to account for the error, and briefly turned Hubble into a punchline of government waste.

From those early stumbles, Hubble became an unmatched tool for astronomers. Five servicing missions were scheduled to mitigate normal wear and install technological upgrades, but the crucial Servicing Mission 4, originally scheduled for 2005, was postponed indefinitely after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. A massive lobbying effort by “Hubble huggers”—Jeletic heard from everyone from cab drivers to kindergartners—got the mission reinstated in 2009. It replaced the data unit, installed new batteries, replaced all six gyroscopes and added two new observation instruments to expand data gathering. “If the fourth servicing mission didn’t happen,” Jeletic says, “we wouldn’t have a mission today.”

Hubble hit its peak capability in 2009 and is still going strong a decade later, traveling nearly five miles per second and rotating around the earth every 95 minutes while peering deep into space. As the spacecraft nears 30 years in orbit, it retains redundancy in almost all critical systems. Three of its six gyroscopes, which are vital to positioning the craft, failed in 2018, but the austerity of the post-Columbia environment forced Jeletic’s team to adapt new “life-extension initiatives.” Though three is the minimum for normal operations, for instance, the craft can subsist on as few as one gyroscope.

“The requirement was to last five years after the last servicing mission,” Jeletic says. “Now we’re at 10. And knock on wood, maybe we’ll be here another five years, maybe we’ll be here in another 10 years.”

Hubble’s scientific track record is unparalleled. Free from the distorting effect of the Earth’s atmosphere, it observes space in the visible, ultraviolet, and near-infrared spectra. It has recorded 1.4 million images, exponentially expanding our understanding of the visible universe. Hubble data has led to 16,000 academic papers that have been cited more than 800,000 times. Observations have revolutionized our ideas about everything from dark energy to exoplanets, from the birth and death of stars to the dynamics of galaxies and black holes.

And along the way, it’s become a beloved entity that is far more than the sum of its hardware. “I can tell you the day that Hubble dies, whatever that means, there will be many tears shed,” Jeletic says. “We have several people here who worked on it when it was being developed. It’s been the majority of my career. It’s one of the most historic missions. … It’s not just a camera on a telescope collecting pictures. For many people, it’s extremely important to them and it’s been their lives, so they’ll be very sad when it goes.”

Jeletic’s work has included other projects, including the establishment of operations protocols for the James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2021 and observe concurrently with Hubble.

But Jeletic’s main focus has always been Hubble, as he’s watched the newsprint he kept on his desk in college turn into experiences more real than he could have ever imagined.

“I am blessed,” Jeletic says. “I’ve had a great career, I’ve done what I wanted to do, as I dreamed of as a kid, and I can’t ask for anything more.”

Matthew De George

Share Button

    Leave a Reply