Mark Carreau covered NASA for the Houston Chronicle for more than 20 years. He started on the day the Challenger exploded - the editor told everyone on the metro desk to write a NASA story - and he stayed on the beat until he was laid off from the Chron a few years ago. Until then, he watched launches, talked to astronauts and covered it all, but one of the best moments during his time on the NASA beat was the launch of Hubble, which happened 24 years ago this week.
"The Hubble launch - like so many programs in NASA's recent history - was controversial. There were lots of questions over whether it should be funded, whether it was worthwhile," Carreau said recently at a coffee shop out in Clear Lake. He's a guy with salt-and-pepper mad-scientist hair, a messy mustache and wire-framed glasses, so he looks like what he is, an old-school reporter. Talking about the Hubble launch he wrapped his hands around his cup of coffee and stared down into it, remembering.
They gathered at Kennedy Space Center that morning, April 24 1990, to watch the shuttle Discovery, take off with the Hubble telescope aboard, Carreau and a bunch of scientists and other NASA people. The scientists that had dreamed of this moment for so long they came from all over to gather in a lot near Kennedy Space Center in Florida where they would be able to see the shuttle lift off Carreau said.
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It started with the ignition of the engine light - Carreau could see it, clear as day from where they stood, he said. Then a white wall of moisture plumed out and he it before a wall of noise hit him and the others who stood there watching. Then the shuttle was off the launch pad so fast. He had to look up fast to see the shuttle disappearing into the sky.
If the launch had been a night launch Carreau would have been able to see the swing far out over the Atlantic Ocean. He loved to watch the burning light streak across the sky. But this launch was during the day. The shuttle disappeared quickly into the blue. Carreau imagined what it was like to be in the shuttle as it headed toward space. He always thought about this during a launch - of the people inside, jammed together, unable to hear each other over the roar, able to communicate only with their eyes. He wondered what they were saying to each other with their eyes up there.
This particular launch was special though, because it was taking the Hubble telescope into orbit. The people Carreau was standing with had worked for years to achieve this. Carreau grew up in Kansas, the son of a surgeon. "When I was a kid, my dad was a surgeon, the kind of job where you really had to be in it. I thought everyone was like that about what they did, but then I grew up and I learned that wasn't true. But the people at NASA had that same passion," he said. "The people who worked at NASA really believed in it, they really loved what they were doing. They were completely in their work."
When the telescope was finally launched - after so many setbacks from the Challenger explosion to the question of funding - it was a moment unlike anything else Carreau has ever experienced, he said. He hesitates to use the word "holy" but that's what it felt like. "Some people were devoted to this project. It was seeing their dream launched," he says. "I looked over and I saw all these men falling to their knees as Discovery lifted off with Hubble aboard. They were weeping and praying on the ground. It was incredible."