The University of Chicago added its own orb to outer space recently.
The game ball from Chicago’s 1909 victory over Indiana was aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, under the care of NASA astronaut and Chicago alumnus John Grunsfeld.
Hubble, a 1910 Chicago graduate, was a star basketball player at the school before he became a famed astronomer. Hubble and his fellow Maroons posted a score of 18-12 over Indiana in 1909.
Hubble earned his doctorate in astronomy from Chicago in 1917, and after a tour of duty in the first World War, he took a job at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, where he photographed Cepheid variables through a 100-inch reflecting Hooker telescope, proving they were outside the galaxy.
Hubble had also devised a classification system for the various galaxies he observed, sorting them by content, distance, shape and brightness. From these observations, he was able to formulate Hubble's Law in 1929, helping astronomers determine the age of the universe, and proving that the universe was expanding.
“Broke out the b-ball today before HST release,” Grunsfeld wrote in a May 19 e-mail to Michael Turner, the Bruce and Diana Rauner Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy and Astrophysics at Chicago. Grunsfeld and three of his crewmates successfully upgraded the Hubble telescope during five spacewalks.
Among Grunsfeld’s challenges on his fifth space mission was to figure out how to get the ball up there.
“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 athletics department for its orbital flight. Grunsfeld will return the basketball personally to the university after the mission, where it will go on display at the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center.
According to the University of Chicago's web site, 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.
Photo Courtesy: John Grunsfeld/University Of Chicago