19 December 2005

Hubble Hopes

Photo credit: NASA

Not long ago in the wake of the Columbia accident and during Sean O'Keefe's reign as NASA administrator it appeared that the Hubble telescope's days were numbered. As recently as this spring the proposed robotic servicing mission appeared overly ambitious, logistically complex, and cost-prohibitive. The most concrete news delivered to long-time HST fans like myself consisted of a deorbit plan.

Enter the new (& present) NASA head honcho, Mike Griffin. He delivered a very different message than his predecessor, and it didn't take long -- speaking about Hubble during his confirmation hearings, he said:

"The decision not to execute the planned shuttle servicing mission was made in the immediate aftermath of the loss of shuttle Columbia." When we return to flight, it will be with essentially a new vehicle that will have a new risk analysis associated with it.... At that time, I think we should reassess the earlier decision in light of what we learn after the return-to-flight."

The man knows how to make an entrance.

Under this new leadership, two weeks ago the tone grew even more positive with this development:

"Preparations for a shuttle mission to upgrade and repair the Hubble Space Telescope in late 2007 or early 2008 are picking up steam as engineers map out the details of a five-spacewalk flight designed to keep the venerable observatory alive and well through at least 2013.

Servicing Mission 4, canceled by former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe in January 2004, is expected to be officially reinstated by current Administrator Mike Griffin if the next shuttle mission, STS-121, goes smoothly and if ongoing analyses show the flight can be conducted in relative safety."

And as of four days ago, things are yet again looking up. The House Committee on Science released the following in their agreement on the space agency's latest authorization bill:

"The final version of the bill includes most of the provisions from both the House and Senate bills. The bill directs NASA to carry out programs in human space flight, aeronautics, space science, earth science and microgravity research, and it endorses President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration. The bill authorizes about $17.9 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2007 and about $18.7 billion in fiscal year 2008 – significantly more than provided for the outyears in the Administration’s fiscal year 2006 budget request."

Included in the major provisions is an endorsement for a "Shuttle mission to the Hubble Space Telescope if it can be accomplished safely."

I'm trying to remain cautiously optimistic about the possibility of SM-4 being reinstated. There are still hurdles to overcome, most notably the foam-shedding issue with the Shuttle's external tank. So, the venerable telescope is not entirely out of the woods yet. At present rate, however, its fate seems a great deal more promising than previously thought, despite the Bush administration's absence of fondness for one of history's greatest scientific instruments.

More to come.



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