Mr. Fix-It

Frank Cepollina takes repair calls to new heights.

Two-armed Dextre robot, which will be used to demonstrate orbital refueling. (NASA/Human Spaceflight)
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After 20 years in orbit, service calls to the Hubble Space Telescope seem so routine that it’s hard to believe they were once considered heroic. But after seven space shuttle astronauts first visited the telescope in 1993 to correct its flawed optics—a mistake that had embarrassed NASA, saddened astronomers, and angered Congress—the shuttle crew and managers at three NASA centers were given a trophy. The National Aeronautic Association cited them for “outstanding leadership, intrepidity, and the renewal of public faith in America’s space program.”

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Frank Cepollina wasn’t mentioned by name, but his colleagues are quick to give him credit. As head of Hubble servicing at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, Cepollina took the lead in planning that first, and still most important, Hubble repair. Cepollina “is one of the most innovative, brilliant guys I’ve ever worked with,” says Jim Crocker, who was then an engineer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, where he designed key elements of the 1993 mission. According to Crocker, if it hadn’t been for Cepollina, there likely would have been no fix for Hubble.

Cepi, as he is known in the aerospace industry, has for more than 30 years been the world’s leading advocate for servicing satellites in orbit. He had his first success when astronauts repaired the Solar Maximum Mission spacecraft in 1984, and for nearly two decades he has overseen service calls to Hubble, among the most complicated space missions ever flown.

With the completion of the space telescope’s fifth and final upgrade last year, you would think the 73-year-old Cepollina would be ready to call it quits. Retirement, though, is the furthest thing from his mind. As he hustles around his Goddard lab, showing me various Hubble repair tools his team developed, he describes his plans for the future, including an audacious project to have robots refuel spacecraft in orbit. “My plan is to develop a national capability to repair and maintain satellites, anywhere and in any location in space,” he explains.

A cheerful man who can overwhelm you with his enthusiasm, Cepollina was raised on a farm in Alameda, California. His job as a child was to maintain the tractors. “I used to have fun taking things apart and seeing how they worked,” he says. In high school, he set his sights on an engineering career. His grandparents, Italian immigrants who believed in hard work and education, were a big influence. “My grandfather always used to tell me, ‘You never want to work with your hands.’ And my grandmother added: ‘You want to go to college, learn a profession!’ ”

Cepollina earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Santa Clara in 1959, got an Army commission, and went to work for the Army Security Agency in Warrenton, Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C. His work brought him into contact with engineers at Goddard, who were building some of the first unmanned space science probes. “This struck me as being more fun,” he says. “I thought the people [at Goddard] weren’t afraid to try new things, weren’t afraid to push new technology.” In 1963, he moved to NASA.

In those early days, it wasn’t certain that humans could do useful work in space. Not until Buzz Aldrin’s Gemini 12 flight in 1966 did an astronaut demonstrate the ability to do detailed technical tasks during a spacewalk. Still, Aldrin needed an enormous amount of training to perform simple exercises such as turning a bolt, connecting plugs, and cutting wires.

Around the same time, Cepollina was moving from one Goddard science project to another. Most were failures. His first NASA mission was the Advanced Orbiting Solar Observatory, which was cancelled in 1965 before reaching the launch pad. Then came the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory program, which was planned as a series of four space telescopes. The first OAO failed shortly after launch, and the third never reached orbit because its rocket shroud failed to jettison.

That wasn’t uncommon in the 1960s. Approximately 30 percent of NASA spacecraft failed within 10 days of launch. “Some would go in the drink, some the boosters would blow up,” Cepollina remembers. “Some would go up, get turned on for a few hours, and then die.”

In the early 1970s, George Low, NASA deputy administrator and one of Apollo’s guiding lights, was pushing the agency to make its spacecraft more reliable and less expensive. Cepollina’s boss, Joseph Purcell, put together an ad hoc committee to look into the problem. The committee suggested that if spacecraft design was standardized and satellites were built with modular components, NASA could save time and money.

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