A House Call for a Hubble House Call

Astronauts with Hubble
Astronauts John Grunsfeld (top) and Richard Linnehan work on the Hubble Space Telescope during the last servicing mission in March 2002.
Courtesy NASA.
The battle over the fate of the Hubble Space Telescope flared up again this week. On Wednesday seven US congressmen led by Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colorado) introduced a resolution into the House of Representatives calling for the appointment of an independent panel of experts to reconsider NASA's decision to stop servicing the orbiting observatory. The statement also asks NASA to continue plans and preparations for the next Hubble servicing mission while the panel's study is ongoing.

In a statement read into the Congressional Record on March 3rd, Udall said, "I want to call attention to the Hubble Space Telescope's contributions to scientific research and education and ensure that any decision affecting its future is made carefully and seriously and for the right reasons." NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe cited Space Shuttle safety concerns in his January 16th announcement that there would be no further visits to Hubble. In the weeks since then, scientists and engineers both inside and outside the space agency have harshly criticized O'Keefe's decision. They are angry that he made it behind closed doors and question whether his assessment of shuttle risk factors is on target. They are also dismayed that O'Keefe didn't give more weight in his deliberations to Hubble's enormous scientific contributions — both those already made and those expected to come from the new camera and spectrograph that were to be installed during the next servicing mission and on which some $160 million of taxpayer money has already been spent.

As several astronomers have commented to Sky & Telescope, the House resolution is remarkable for the specificity of its language. It quotes the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report, which said that NASA must not rely on the International Space Station (ISS) to inspect shuttles and make repairs in orbit. Astronauts need to be able to inspect and repair a shuttle without help from the ISS in case an in-flight emergency puts the station out of reach.

O'Keefe has maintained that the ISS reduces the risk to a shuttle crew because it can serve as a safe haven. But he has also pledged to comply with all the CAIB's recommendations. As the House resolution observes, meeting those requires that the shuttle be able to fly safely even if it can't reach the ISS, as it cannot do during a Hubble servicing mission. So, once flights resume — at which point the shuttle will undoubtedly be safer than at any time in the program's history — why not return to Hubble as planned?

In late January Admiral Harold Gehman, chair of the now-disbanded CAIB, agreed to take a closer look at this question after Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) demanded that O'Keefe seek a second opinion on the risks involved in servicing Hubble. According to both Gehman's and Mikulski's offices, his report is expected "soon," perhaps by next week.

But the new House resolution could trump anything Gehman — or O'Keefe, for that matter — might have to say. According to Lawrence Pacheco, Udall's press secretary, the resolution is intended to convince congressional budgeteers to fund another Hubble servicing mission, even if NASA says it doesn't want to fly one.

If the resolution passes, it would not be the first time Congress has come to Hubble's aid. Last year NASA threatened to siphon money from the Hubble program to help pay for development of the James Webb Space Telescope, due for launch in 2011. Congress insisted that NASA convene a blue-ribbon panel to review that plan, and the group came down strongly in favor of keeping Hubble in operation at least until the Webb telescope is in orbit. Without another servicing mission, Hubble is likely to cease functioning around 2007 or so, when its batteries or some other critical components wear out.

NASA officials note that work is still being done to prepare for another visit to Hubble and that the servicing team remains intact. But without an infusion of cash within the next few weeks, the agency will have no choice but to begin laying off workers or reassigning them to other projects.

How to Help Hubble

Earlier today the American Astronomical Society sent an e-mail to its 6,000 members asking them to urge their representatives in the House to sign on as cosponsors of H. Res. 550, as Udall's resolution is officially known. The more cosponsors a resolution has, the more likely it is to come to the floor of the House for a vote — and the more likely it is to pass.

Many readers of Sky & Telescope have asked us how amateur astronomers can help save Hubble, and the answer is the same as it is for professionals: Write to your representative in the House, urging cosponsorship of H. Res. 550. The following links will get you started:

. Find your representative in the House

. Send e-mail to your representative in the House

Sky & Telescope will continue to cover this story as new developments warrant. For more information, see the articles listed below.

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Richard Tresch Fienberg

About Richard Tresch Fienberg

Professional astronomer by training and Sky & Telescope's former editor in chief, Rick Fienberg is now press officer at the American Astronomical Society and an advocate for astronomy outreach.