Most people know Edwin Hubble as a famed astronomer, but he also starred as a forward on the University of Chicago Maroons’ Big Ten champion basketball teams of 1907–08 and 1908–09.
And as fellow Chicago alumnus John Grunsfeld has prepared for his fifth space shuttle flight since 1995, he’s been pondered how best to deflate a century-old ball that Hubble had tossed around in a 1909 victory against Indiana University.
The challenge: Find a way to compactly stow the old pigskin, which to everyone’s surprise lacks an air valve, aboard the space shuttle Atlantis for its upcoming launch.
The problem unfolded last summer in a series of e-mails between Grunsfeld and Michael Turner, a University of Chicago astronomy and astrophysics professor.
“It’s a cosmic mystery as to how the ball was filled, and now for me how to drain it,” Grunsfeld told Turner, who had borrowed the basketball from the university’s athletics program for its orbital flight. Grunsfeld plans to return the basketball personally to the University after the mission, when it will go on display.
“We couldn’t find a valve to deflate it, so we will leave it to the rocket scientists to figure out how to flatten it,” Turner told Grunsfeld. It presented another challenge of the kind that Grunsfeld relishes, but would never have anticipated as an astronaut.
Five weeks before scheduled launch, Grunsfeld punctured the basketball with a hypodermic needle. “Nothing happened, no air hissing out, or any air transfer at all as I compressed the ball,” he said. Grunsfeld assumed that he had punctured the pigskin, but not the underlying air bladder. And yet more punctures with different needles in different locations also failed to deflate the ball.
Finally, with the University’s permission, Grunsfeld resorted to cutting a small incision into the ball. “To my astonishment, I discovered that there is no bladder, and no pressurized air. The basketball was filled with an organic fiber packing,” he said.
Grunsfeld plans to reshape the ball while in orbit and gently pass it around to crewmates during a photo-op. The moment should provide a memorable, light-hearted counterpoint to his usual orbital workload of marathon spacewalks and Hubble Telescope repairs.