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NASA Agrees to Independent Review on Fate of Hubble

The sombrero galaxy, as seen by Hubble. Photo courtesy NASA and STScI
The Sombrero galaxy, as seen by Hubble. (Photo courtesy NASA and STScI)

By Danny Jacobs
Capital News Service
Thursday, Jan. 29, 2004

WASHINGTON - NASA officials have agreed to take a second look at their decision to drop the next servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, potentially prolonging Hubble's time and use in space.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said in a letter Wednesday to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., that retired Adm. Harold Gehman will lead an independent investigation of the decision two weeks ago to cancel Hubble's fifth and final service mission.

Without that servicing mission, scheduled for as early as 2006, Hubble could stop working years before its scheduled 2010 retirement date.

But National Aeronautics and Space Administration spokesman Glenn Mahone cautioned that while Gehman will offer an "objective and thoughtful" opinion, the safety standards adopted for space shuttle use after the Columbia disaster make it "not realistic" to engage in another mission to Hubble.

"There's no timetable, but it's not a long-term process," Mahone said of the review. Gehman, who headed the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, knows what the board recommended "and he will review it and offer an opinion."

Still, Mikulski, the ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee that oversees the NASA's budget, was pleased with the decision. Hubble is managed and operated by Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, while the Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University oversees its science operations.

"My view is when someone is told they need major surgery, any prudent person would get a second opinion. That's what I told Administrator O'Keefe and that's what he has agreed to do," Mikulski said in a prepared statement. "We cannot prematurely terminate the last servicing mission without a rigorous review."

The announcement came a day after all 10 members of Maryland's congressional delegation wrote to O'Keefe asking him to reconsider the cancellation of the servicing mission.

"The scientific returns we have received from Hubble's service thus far have exceeded our expectations," the letter said. "Given the president's recent pronouncement of a vision to rededicate the nation's commitment to space exploration, we believe that NASA should make every possible effort to retain this proven window on the universe."

The letter also mentioned the $200 million already spent on the planned servicing mission, and reports that it could cost more than $300 million to bring Hubble back to Earth.

"In light of these costs, as well as several decades of funding already devoted to Hubble, a decision to cancel the Hubble program several years shy of its goal appears to make little sense," the letter said.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, whose district includes Goddard, praised O'Keefe for revisiting the previous decision.

"Today's news that he is willing to review his decision demonstrates his willingness to work with the members of the Maryland delegation so that this telescope, which has produced so many substantial scientific discoveries, is not abandoned," he said.

Steven Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, said he welcomed a review of the mission cancellation and hoped another look at the space program's new direction would convince the agency that Hubble fits into the plan.

"We're delighted the administrator (O'Keefe) considered the Hubble telescope important enough to seek advice on his decision," he said. "He can count on the Space Telescope Science Institute to ensure Hubble will have a bright scientific future."

The original decision to cancel the servicing mission followed President Bush's Jan. 14 announcement that he planned to refocus the country's space agenda on returning humans to the moon, followed by manned exploration of Mars and beyond.

New safety standards for space shuttle use in the wake of the Columbia disaster made a trip to repair Hubble too risky and costly, NASA said Jan. 16. Current plans call for the shuttle to be used only to finish building the International Space Station.

The James Webb Telescope, Hubble's successor, is scheduled for launch in 2010.

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Last updated: 04/09/04 02:04 PM

Copyright 2004 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism.