Preposterous Universe

Sunday, March 14, 2004
Hubble's fate

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe's decision to cancel future servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope has been met with an outcry from scientists, politicians, and ordinary people all over the world. It's been very difficult to figure out what O'Keefe's response really is. On the one hand, he has agreed to request a new National Academy of Sciences report that would study the pros and cons of future servicing missions. On the other, he continues to say (for example in today's New York Times) that he won't authorize a new Shuttle mission that is inconsistent with the guidelines set forth by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board -- which an HST servicing mission would be, since there is currently no way for a Shuttle crew visiting HST to inspect the orbiter for damage.

Safety is the most common argument against future servicing missions -- fortunately for those of us who favor new missions, it's a completely ridiculous argument. True, manned missions to space are dangerous, no matter what precautions we take. But does anyone in their right mind think that a visit to HST is more dangerous than a trip to Mars? The astronauts who comprise shuttle crews understand the risks, and would be more than eager to get the chance to upgrade Hubble. The only real argument is about money.

Which is completely ludicrous, since the budget includes a hefty chunk of change for future missions and upgrades to the International Space Station. The ISS has been a sad boondoggle from start to finish, a laughingstock in the scientific community. A combination of international obligations and a politically-astute dispersion of ISS contracts throughout multiple congressional districts make this beast impossible to kill. Apparently the Administration's plan is to spend a huge amount of money finish building it (just barely), and then declare victory ("Mission Accomplished"?) and let it rot up in orbit.

Meanwhile, clever folks at NASA are examining all sorts of imaginative proposals for servicing Hubble robotically, without a manned mission. These guys are good, and it may be possible to keep the observatory orbiting and operating for longer than its current expected lifespan of 3-4 years. But it's nearly impossible to imagine upgrading the telescope with the new instruments that have already been built. Regardless of this effort, it's absolutely worthwhile to keep pushing for another servicing mission to HST.

(I suppose posts like this don't help my chances for future NASA funding very much.)

Related: Ultra Deep Field.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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