Hubble politics

NASA’s decision last Friday to scrap the last shuttle mission to the Hubble Space Telescope has generated its fair share of controversy, and now a degree of political attention. On Wednesday Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) sent a letter to NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, asking him to appoint an independent panel to review his decision to cancel the servicing mission, SPACE.com reported. (While Mikulski is a staunch supporter of NASA, she has some practical interests here: Hubble is controlled by the Goddard Space Flight Center with scientific operations based out of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), both located in Maryland.) She also plans to meet Monday with the staff of STScI in Baltimore.

Even the White House has been dragged into the controversy about the decision. In a press briefing Friday, White House press secretary Scott McClellan was asked why NASA had cancelled the SM4 servicing mission. “I think NASA can probably address those matters… I think NASA can talk to you more about some of the specific details within that,” he answered, unwilling or (more likely) simply unable to provide specific information.

Hubble supporters aren’t giving up, but in an effort to come up with alternatives to keep the telescope operating they do appear to be grasping at straws. SPACE.com reported that STScI officials are looking at everything from working with Russia on a Soyuz-based servicing mission to accepting donations to pay for a servicing mission. It would seem very difficult—and thus expensive, even for Russia—to adapt a Soyuz to perform a servicing mission on a spacecraft designed to be worked on only by the shuttle. Moreover, donations by private citizens can’t be transferred into federal coffers for specific programs. Sky & Telescope does have some useful suggestions for what the public can do, including writing their members of Congress. At the very least you can also sign an online petition, although the effectiveness of such a step may be limited, at best.

5 comments to Hubble politics

  • The issue doesn’t seem to be money but risk. In order to service Hubble the Shuttle would have to go directly against recommendations made by the CAIB. Or are folks seriously suggesting the CAIB recommendations be ignored?

  • Jeff Foust

    Actually, a shuttle mission to HST would not go against the CAIB’s recommendations. To quote from Recommendation R6.4-1 (http://www.caib.us/news/report/pdf/vol1/chapters/chapter11.pdf) from the CAIB’s final report:

    For non-Station missions, develop a comprehensive autonomous (independent of Station) inspection and repair capability to cover the widest possible range of damage scenarios… The ultimate objective should be a fully autonomous capability for all missions to address the possibility that an International Space Station mission fails to achieve the correct orbit, fails to dock successfully, or is damaged during or after undocking.

    NASA decided that, because the HST servicing mission would be the only non-ISS mission planned through the retirement of the shuttle in 2010, it could save money by not developing an inspection capability independent of the station. This brings up an interesting question: since there may be cases where a shuttle mission to the ISS can’t reach the station (perhaps because of some abort-to-orbit scenarios), is this decision against the spirit, if not the letter, of the CAIB recommendation?

  • You might also refer yourself to Director Beckwith’s letter posted on the STScI website(at http://www.stsci.edu/resources/sm4meeting.html) regarding the cancellation. He makes it clear that O’keefe made the decision based on many factors, CAIB being but one, and that it was a “razor’s edge” line between yea and nea.
    I signed the petition because (1) The Hubble is one of the best PR parts of all NASA program and losing it will lose both public and scientific support; (2) Its work is priceless; (3) Besides extending its life, the visit was also to install 2 new (expensive) instruments built just for Hubble, that would add 2 new capacities to its mission. I think it merits another look, considering the public’s and scientists’ desires…

  • Director Beckwith’s letter contained the following:

    “(4)Non-ISS flights require additional developments for shuttles to fly:

    a)Ability to inspect the entire shuttle on orbit.
    b)Ability to repair the shuttle on orbit for a certain set of failures
    c)Some kind of safe-haven or rescue capability in case of catastrophic failures that cannot be repaired on orbit.

    (5)Implementation of the additional items in (4) would have to be made on a one-use basis for SM4 alone. They would never be used again, and NASA would learn nothing from their development, vis-a-vis heritage for future space missions.”

    O’Keefe may have erred on this point. The capabilities that Beckwith mentions in (4a) and(4b) would likely be desirable for missions involving the CEV and certainly for any manned Mars mission.

    However, I don’t think that shuttle should be used to service Hubble; I wouldn’t want to damage a valuable telescope. Instead, a robotic service mission should be launched, perhaps testing out some of the ideas of the CEV system like Boeing’s “resource module”.

    And simple, small robots that carry a small amount of fuel and maneuvering thrusters, some waldoes and tools, video cameras and communications equipment… how could such a device _not_ help the entire NASA vision? The astronaut operating it might have a better “feel” for what he is doing through the waldoes and teleoperation than he would if trying to feel through his spacesuit gloves.