Estonian twins’ incredible career at NASA

Edward Ruitberg

PHOTO: Sander Ilvest

Two twin brothers from Estonia became top developers of NASA space technology during a career spanning 50 years. Arthur Ruitberg, nine minutes younger than his brother Edward, built devices for the Cassini spacecraft and the Mars rover that’s still on the red planet, while Edward became the deputy head of the Hubble program after starting out at NASA as an engineer.

“I believe that we scored a jackpot when they invited us to work at NASA. It was the best thing that could have happened to us at the time,” Edward says. He is driving us to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from his home near Annapolis on the U.S. East Coast. It is that campus of around 10,000 people today where the Ruitberg brothers spent their career from when they were 18 until retirement.

Foot in the door at NASA in college

NASA recruited the now 71-year-old twins straight from school in the late 1960s. Ed and Art studied at the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York and hoped to work for the nearby Grumman Aerospace Corporation. The latter was developing the moon landing module for NASA at the time. Then, an unexpected phone call presented the opportunity to work as trainees directly for NASA in Maryland. “NASA were looking for students with a high grade point average. My brother and I were a perfect fit.”

As is the case for many twins, Ed and Art wanted to work together and accepted the offer. The next three years were spent alternating semesters at NASA and the university. When they graduated as electrical engineers in 1971, full-time jobs were already waiting for the twins at NASA.

Art remained true to the vocation of an electrical engineer until the end of his career. Scientists planning space missions walked into his laboratory and communicated what they needed, with Art developing power supply systems for the devices from start to finish.  “Art was the first guy the scientists would go to when they needed high voltage devices,” Ed says.

Art built the power supply system for the rover that is currently busy on Mars and the Cassini spacecraft that was sent to discover our solar system and was later decommissioned on Saturn.

Edward’s career gradually led him away from the engineering profession. He was invited to the team of a new NASA super program in 1981. It was tasked with building and sending to orbit the world’s first space telescope – Hubble. Ed describes it as the second jackpot in his life.

“I was looking at more responsibility and a much broader field of work. I experienced a lot more when working on Hubble, like working with scientists.”

The Hubble Space Telescope remains the most powerful of its kind to this day. It lies some 550 kilometers from Earth. Its targeting accuracy is one-tenth of an arcsecond and stability five milliarcseconds. “Try to imagine shining a beam of light out of Tallinn and precisely hitting a 10-cent coin in Tartu,” Edward says.

Because Hubble lies outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, it gives us clearer and sharper images any Earth-based telescope could manage,” senior project scientist with the Hubble program Jennifer Wiseman explains. “Hubble has allowed us to see the universe and objects that lie unfathomably far away.”

The telescope has achieved a kind of cult status. It has its own fan clubs. On the one hand, this is thanks to groundbreaking scientific discoveries it has facilitated and that have yielded more than one Nobel prize. But on the other, the story of Hubble has been a tragic one and its fate hung in the balance more than once.

“We wanted to put Hubble in orbit using a space shuttle in the middle of the 1980s, but the Challenger disaster in 1986 postponed the launch by several years,” Ed says. The space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch killing five astronauts and two specialists.

The telescope was finally sent to orbit in April of 1990.

Because megaprojects like this span decades, it takes a very long time to hit intermediary targets.

“The launch is one of the key milestones. You know it’s seven years away, and to get there, the entire team needs to work as one,” Ed explains. He kept visualizing the launch throughout the process, picturing the giant telescope waiting for launch inside the space shuttle.

“The road is difficult and exhausting, especially since we need to invent devices and detectors that have never been built before. Mishaps are inevitable. The last weeks and days before the launch, you feel excited and can’t wait to celebrate. That feeling alone is worth it. And then you see the first photos from the telescope,” he says.

From a flop to a journey of dreams

However, the initial photographs were anything but what Ed and his colleagues were hoping to see. They were blurry and out of focus. The three-billion-dollar project suddenly became a laughingstock. Cartoons were drawn of Hubble. NASA was ridiculed in the press. The world’s most powerful telescope was virtually useless because its huge main mirror had a flaw the size of one-fifth of the width of a hair.

“It was a complete surprise that something like this could befall a project of this magnitude. The reputation and future of NASA were at stake. NASA was looking at reorganization and layoffs for a lot of people, from specialists to top executives, while major future projects were to be given to another organization,” Edward recalls.

It took three years to save Hubble. In December of 1993, a space shuttle took a team of astronauts to the telescope to replace the wide field and planetary camera during five space walks that fixed the problem.

“When we received the first photo, we were hugely relieved. I remember the science conference where they showed the same photo before and after the camera was replaced. The difference was night and day. There were standing ovations. That is when the dream journey of Hubble started,” Edward retells.

That journey has produced numerous scientific breakthroughs that have broadened mankind’s understanding of our solar system, galaxy and the universe. Every year, scientists from all over the world request the telescope be pointed at something they’re interested in.

Jennifer Wiseman estimates that the working group in charge grants a fifth of these requests. There are simply so many. “Soon after the photographs are made available to the scientists who requested them, they are released publicly. This has allowed many other scientists to make important discoveries and publish papers.”

After the crucial mission in 1993, another four service flights to Hubble have taken place that have seen 23 space walks. Edward Ruitberg was involved with all of them. “We achieved everything we set out to do every single time.” The power supply solution for a spectrograph we needed to replace was developed by Art. It matters to Edward. “I feel we worked together to fulfil the mission successfully.”

Secret mission to save the telescope

Another critical moment for Hubble came in 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia exploded soon after takeoff killing seven astronauts and causing NASA to shelve the shuttle program. This meant that Hubble could no longer be regularly serviced. The Hubble team started secretly working on a robot mission.

“We spent at least 18 months on it, but it soon became apparent it would be too expensive. The last estimate I remember was something like $1.5 billion, while there were many risks that could have materialized and jeopardized the project,” Preston Burch, Edward’s colleague, boss and friend, recalls. The new head of NASA Mike Griffin understood the situation and made happen one last shuttle mission to maintain Hubble.

The mission that took place in 2009 saw the replacement of the telescope’s gyroscopes that give its cameras the necessary stability and allow pinpoint positioning. “We estimated the telescope would last another five years after that, but it’s still going,” Burch says.

No one knows how long Hubble will last. Three of the six gyroscopes have already broken down, while one has over 100,000 work hours under its belt. “I believe it has a few good years left, but I would not bet on it. It could be hit by a meteorite at any moment.”

Edward was awarded a plaque for successfully seeing through the last service mission that he keeps at home in a separate museum room that displays all manner of tokens of thanks, diplomas and awards.

“All of it can be seen as Hubble history. But because I spent so many years working for Hubble, it can also be seen as marking the path of my career,” Edward says.

When Edward had worked for NASA for 40 years, he received thanks for his exemplary career and retired. He kept working with a services contract for several more years.

The man has one more dream. Hubble’s last mission. No one knows how long the telescope will last, but it will need to be brought back down to Earth one day.

“My dream is being able to see through that mission with Preston once Hubble gets there. We would be like Clint Eastwood and Donald Sutherland in “Space Cowboys.” That is how I would like to end my career,” Edward says.