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Scientists Cautiously Optimistic About  Space Telescope's Future

By Danny Jacobs
Capital News Service
Friday, Jan. 30, 2004

BALTIMORE - Astronomer and instrument scientist Ken Sembach has spent the past two-plus years working on the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, which will analyze the light of distant objects in space to determine their chemical composition.

Sembach also hopes to find previously unseen mass with the instrument.

There's just one problem -- the spectrograph first needs to get to the Hubble Space Telescope, whose fifth and final servicing mission was canceled two weeks ago.

"To have it canceled is a big disappointment," said Sembach, one of 500 Space Telescope Science Institute employees who manage Hubble's science operations. "I based my plans for the next five to 10 years to work on that. My past, present and future are affected."

Sembach was one of hundreds of institute workers who packed an auditorium Friday at Johns Hopkins University to meet with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., one day after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration agreed to review its Hubble decision.

Mikulski said she did not want to raise hopes, but the visit was still viewed by workers as a much-needed morale boost after Jan. 16. That was the day NASA announced plans to cancel the next shuttle mission to Hubble, due to new safety standards for the space shuttle after the Columbia disaster.

"I don't want to cancel Hubble with the stroke of a pen," said Mikulski, the ranking Democrat on a Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA's budget. "The safety of astronauts is number one in importance, but I want a second opinion."

That second opinion will come from retired Adm. Harold Gehman, who oversaw the Columbia investigation and who was tapped by NASA officials this week to review the Hubble decision.

Richard Kidwell, a software systems engineer who has worked on Hubble for 16 years, said the Hopkins-based institute was already facing budget cuts as Hubble neared its scheduled retirement in 2010, so the announcement was a "double whammy."

"It'd be almost criminal if they just let it fade away. It's been the best science mission since Apollo," he said.

Last year around this time, Kidwell said, officials were even talking about extending Hubble's mission, since the telescope was in excellent condition. That changed on Feb. 1, when Columbia disintegrated on re-entry.

For now, workers at the institute are going about their business as normally as possible.

On the first floor Friday, six workers sat in the glass-enclosed flight operations control room. Some monitored three computer screens at once, each filled with lines of data from Hubble, which orbits the earth once every 96 minutes from 300 miles in space.

Framed pictures of the telescopes' discoveries lined the walls outside, bright colors and patterns that have been used in newspapers and classrooms around the world.

As Hubble's successes have traveled around the world, so has support for the endangered telescope been coming in from around the globe. Institute workers said they have been amazed and appreciative of the support, be it in the form of e-mails, monetary donations or simply ideas on how to prolong Hubble's working life.

"No other space mission has endeared itself like Hubble," said Ray Villard, a spokesman for the institute. "It cuts across race, gender and country."

Howard Bond, an astronomer who has worked on Hubble for 20 years, remembers that Hubble's original 1986 launch date was postponed because of the shuttle Challenger disaster. Hubble was launched four years later, but a bad mirror prevented its real use until it was fixed in 1993.

"That revolutionized everything," said Bond, sitting in the auditorium Friday after most of the audience had cleared out.

Villard remembers when Mikulski triumphantly held up Hubble's first corrected images 10 years ago at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and announced "the trouble with Hubble is over."

Bond said it has been pretty depressing the last few weeks around the institute.

"We've been gearing up some time for the next servicing mission," he said. "We've spent millions of dollars preparing, and to be told that we can't do it is devastating."

But while uncertain about Hubble's future, Bond is still glad that it is at least being given a second look -- even if the second opinion only agrees with the first.

"I'm confident the right decision will be made," he said.

Kidwell agreed.

"It's nice to know the issue isn't dead," he said.

Mikulski said she will accept whatever recommendation Gehman makes, though she believed Hubble will have value until its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is launched sometime after 2010.

"While we wait and work for Webb, there's a lot of work that can be done if we do a service mission," she said. "If Hubble goes dark then scientific discovery will go dark.


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Last updated: 04/09/04 03:04 PM

Copyright 2004 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism.