Lemelson-MIT Program
Who We Are Awards Outreach News
Invention Dimension Search Site Map Contact Us
Inventor of the Week

Inventor of the Week Archive

Browse for a different Invention or Inventor


Satellite Servicing Techniques

Cepollina The advent of space flight, and the widespread practice of putting satellites into orbit for communications purposes, has posed a variety of challenges for scientists, engineers and researchers this past half-century. One of the most important problems has been finding feasible methods for making necessary repairs and improvements to such equipment when it is actually deployed in space.

NASA engineer-inventor Frank J. Cepollina has devoted much of his nearly 50-year career to this problem. His list of accomplishments includes groundbreaking techniques for servicing satellites, designing new tools and interfaces for astronauts, and leading the historic 1993 repair mission for the Hubble Space Telescope.

A Northern California native, Cepollina was born in 1936 and attended the University of Santa Clara where he graduated in 1959 with a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering. He joined Aerojet General Corp. and later the Defense Intelligence Agency before signing on with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in 1963.

From his early days with NASA, Cepollina worked on engineering solutions for satellites and spacecraft. In the late 1960s, satellite failure was becoming a significant problem, and engineers at NASA, including Cepollina, began working on a new type of "Multimission Modular Craft." These craft would have swappable parts and could potentially be fixed easily by space-walking astronauts who NASA anticipated would soon be flying on regular Space Shuttle missions. The first of these craft was the Solar Maximum satellite, launched in 1980. When it began to fail several months into orbit, Cepollina was asked to lead the repair mission, begun in 1984. The mission the first of its kind was a success; the modular craft concept proved effective. Cepollina was lauded for his leadership on the project and was subsequently named Satellite Servicing Project Manager.

Not too long after, Cepollina was faced with an enormous challenge: repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, widely cited as the most difficult on-orbit repair mission ever attempted. Having worked on the development of its modular design, as well as its command and control subsystem, he knew the Hubble well. But few could have anticipated that the Hubble, launched in 1990 and orbiting 375 miles above the earth, would have a problem such as the one it did: Its lens was flawed, and corrective optics would have to be installed. Newly designed instruments were built from scratch and successfully installed by astronauts in December of 1993, under Cepollina's guidance. The mission was a major success, marking a satellite-servicing milestone and boosting NASA's worldwide reputation.

Cepollina's leading additional successful repair and improvement missions for Hubble followed in 1997, 1999 and 2002. These added performance-enhancing technologies that were not available at the time of Hubble's initial deployment, including better cameras, more efficient solar arrays, and a more powerful processor for data transfer.

Cepollina's work has lead to developments outside the space realm, including medicine and consumer products. Technology developed for Hubble, for example, has been used to help detect breast cancer, and optics technology for Hubble has helped speed smaller, faster microchips.

In addition, in 1969, Cepollina patented an innovative strain gauge measuring technique (U.S. Patent No. 3,460,378) for measuring multiple points of strain on complex systems. He is author or co-author on numerous papers and reports including the often-referenced "In-Orbit Servicing."

His long list of honors and awards includes NASA's Exceptional Achievement Award, the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, and the Robert C. Baumann Memorial Award, the GSFC's highest honor for mission success, awarded in 2000. Also that year, President George W. Bush named him Meritorious Executive in Senior Executive Service. In 2001, he and his Hubble Space Telescope Team won the Space Foundation Space Achievement Award, and in 2003, he was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame. As of this 2005 writing, he continues to serve as Deputy Associate Director for the Hubble Space Telescope Development Project. He lives with his wife in Annandale, Virginia.

[August 2005]

Invention Dimension
Inventor of the Week Inventor of the Week
Inventor's Handbook Inventor's Handbook
Games & Trivia Games & Trivia
Links & Resources Links & Resources