Thursday, November 2, 2006
NASA is taking a big risk in its planned mission to repair the space telescope in 2008, but the scientific benefits are worth it
National Aeronautics and Space Administration managers made a gutsy call this week in announcing plans for space shuttle astronauts to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope in 2008.
The 11-day mission will be fraught with risk, but NASA Administrator Michael Griffin decided correctly to approve it. The celebrated telescope is far too valuable scientifically to be abandoned in orbit, its batteries and gyroscopes left untended and doomed to die by 2009.
For 16 years, Hubble has been NASA’s most effective program by far in terms of helping scientists unravel mysteries of the universe. The telescope’s quiet, unmanned operation isn’t nearly as splashy as missions by astronauts to the International Space Station, but research from those adventures looks trivial compared with Hubble’s discoveries.
Orbiting nearly 400 miles above the Earth’s obscuring atmosphere, the telescope has helped establish the age of the universe and its rate of expansion. It has provided a glimpse of the universe as it existed 12 billion years ago. It has found 16 planets that orbit distant stars, additional moons around Pluto and evidence of atmospheres on planets orbiting stars other than the sun.
Periodic servicing missions to the telescope by shuttle astronauts have kept those stunning images coming since Hubble was launched in 1990. But after the shuttle Columbia exploded in 2003, killing all seven of its astronauts, NASA’s administrator at the time, Sean O’Keefe, canceled Hubble’s next scheduled repair mission, effectively condemning the scientific treasure to an early demise.
We supported O’Keefe’s controversial decision at the time, agreeing that manned missions to the telescope were too risky. Since then, however, NASA has launched three successful shuttle missions, and each of them showed diminishing foam fuel-tank insulation losses like that causing the Columbia disaster. A manned mission to Hubble is safer now.
Safer, not safe. The May 2008 mission aboard shuttle Discovery will be a brave undertaking by its crew of seven. They will fly without one crucial part of the safety plan NASA established after Columbia blew up: safe haven at the space station while waiting several weeks for a rescue mission to be mounted if the shuttle is crippled.
On its voyage to the telescope, Discovery won’t be able to make it to the space station in an emergency. Instead, NASA will have a second shuttle on a launch pad, ready for an immediate rescue mission to Discovery, which will carry enough supplies for 25 days.
Yes, it’s going to be risky, but all space travel is inherently so. In this case, the people at NASA have rightly concluded that the risks of repairing Hubble one more time are more than offset by the tremendous scientific value of keeping the telescope peering deep into space at least until 2013.