Gloves Come Off in Fight to Save Hubble

Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope was last serviced in March 2002, when shuttle astronauts snapped this picture after installing new scientific instruments and other equipment. NASA and the US Congress are now embroiled in a debate over whether astronauts should visit the telescope again.
Courtesy NASA.
Both houses of Congress are now battling NASA and the Bush administration over the future of the Hubble Space Telescope. During a Senate hearing on the space agency's proposed 2005 budget yesterday, Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-Missouri) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) called for two independent reviews of NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe's January 16th decision to stop servicing the orbiting observatory.

One study, by the blue-ribbon National Academy of Sciences, would consider whether the benefits of another Hubble house call by Space Shuttle astronauts are worth the risks involved. The other, by the General Accounting Office, would examine the cost of servicing Hubble in the larger context of paying to fix the types of problems that led to last year's tragic loss of the shuttle Columbia and her crew of seven.

Bond and Mikulski's request echoes last week's introduction of a resolution in the House of Representatives, which also called for a review by outside experts. Both the Senate and House actions also specify that preparations for the next Hubble servicing mission, scheduled to occur in 2006 until O'Keefe cancelled it, should continue uninterrupted while the various studies are under way.

Bond and Mikulski are the chair and ranking minority member, respectively, of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. Mikulski's home state hosts both the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), where Hubble's scientific operations are headquartered, and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, where servicing-mission plans are developed. Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colorado) drafted the House resolution; his district is home to Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., which has built most of Hubble's scientific instruments — including the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, which was due to be installed on the observatory during the next shuttle visit. When Udall introduced his resolution, he had seven cosponsors representing both the Democratic and Republican parties. Since then 18 more representatives have signed on, including Vernon Ehlers (R-Michigan), one of only two Ph.D. physicists in Congress.

All this activity follows weeks of anticipation while Admiral Harold Gehman, former chair of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), deliberated on whether O'Keefe's cancellation of future Hubble servicing is justified purely on the grounds of safety, as the NASA administrator has argued. O'Keefe agreed to solicit a "second opinion" from Gehman in late January at Mikulski's urging. In a letter to Mikulski dated March 5th and released to the public yesterday, Gehman averred that all shuttle flights are dangerous and that a mission to Hubble "may be slightly more risky" than ones to the International Space Station, where the crew of a shuttle damaged during launch could seek safe haven. But whereas O'Keefe has maintained that this is reason enough to stop servicing Hubble, Gehman wrote, "I suggest only a deep and rich study of the entire gain/risk equation can answer the question of whether an extension of the life of the wonderful Hubble telescope is worth the risks involved."

At yesterday morning's NASA budget hearing, which Mikulski described as "very constructive," O'Keefe agreed to consult with the National Academy of Sciences. But later that afternoon, he reiterated that he does not feel that anything could come to light to make him change his decision to halt further Hubble servicing. O'Keefe said he welcomes ideas to prolong the observatory's scientific life, but he is not interested in pursuing any suggestions that, in his view, compromise the CAIB recommendations.

In a strongly worded response issued yesterday evening, Mikulski stated, "This decision must not be made arbitrarily by one person at NASA or one person in Congress. The scientific community, engineering community, astronauts, and many members of Congress — of both parties, in both houses — have grave concerns about the path you are taking." Leaving no possibility for misunderstanding, she continued, "Know that should you disregard these concerns, I will do everything that I can as a member of the Appropriations Committee to make sure that this year's NASA budget provides adequate funding to continue planning and preparation activities related to Hubble until the studies are complete and an informed decision can be made."

While no deadline has been set for the National Academy's analysis, Bond and Mikulski asked the General Accounting Office to complete its cost study by July 1st.

"NASA is a 'can-do' agency that has solved more difficult problems than the one of servicing Hubble," says STScI director Steven Beckwith. "While other options are conceivable, a shuttle visit to Hubble is the best way to keep it scientifically productive, and Admiral Gehman's letter clearly shows NASA how it can comply with both the spirit and letter of the CAIB recommendations while also keeping the world's most powerful telescope in operation for many years to come."

As we've been doing since the Hubble-servicing story broke in mid-January, Sky & Telescope will continue to cover major developments as they occur.


The following documents relevant to the last few days' events are available online as PDF files; to open them, you'll need Adobe Reader, which is available at no cost for most computers.

. Adm. Gehman's letter to Sen. Mikulski (March 5, 2004)

. NASA administrator O'Keefe's letter to Sen. Mikulski (March 10, 2004)

. Letters from Sens. Bond and Mikulski to NASA's O'Keefe and GAO comptroller Walker (March 11, 2004)

. NASA White Paper on Cancellation of the Next Hubble Servicing Mission (March 11, 2004)

. Sen. Mikulski's letter to NASA's O'Keefe (March 11, 2004)

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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.
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