NASA's Astro gets reprieve from budget ax

May 21, 1991|By Luther Young

The Astro observatory of ultraviolet telescopes has been spared the budget ax and will fly again aboard a space shuttle in 1993, reversing an earlier NASA decision to end the project after its successful first mission last December.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D.-Md., and NASA's chief scientist, Lennard Fisk, made the announcement yesterday at the Johns Hopkins University, home of one of the Astro instruments and astrophysicist Samuel T. Durrance, a payload specialist on the nine-day December mission.

"I talked with NASA leadership. We went back, scrubbed over the whole budget, and we're absolutely committed" to $30 million in funding for the Astro reflight, said Ms. Mikulski, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees the space agency's budget.

Astro was originally scheduled for as many as six flights, but budget cuts and a shortage of shuttle launches prompted NASA change its plans. The $150 million observatory was being dismantled at Kennedy Space Center in January when supporters began lobbying for a reprieve. "We have an obligation to pursue missions like Astro-2," Dr. Fisk said yesterday. He added that no NASA science missions had been curtailed or canceled because of the "relatively small dollars" involved.

NASA is currently fighting with Congress to retain funding for development of a space station and is facing a proposed $1 billion in cuts to its fiscal 1992 budget request. Scientists worry that any shortfall will come out of the agency's science budget.

One cutback on Astro-2 involves the observatory's X-ray telescope, built at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. It will be dropped, leaving the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope, Goddard's Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope and the Wisconsin Ultraviolet Photopolarimeter.

Ms. Mikulski said the reflight would have an impact on "some new projects that are unknown. We need to concentrate on projects already approved or built. I thought it was not in the taxpayers' interest to jettison the investment we have in Astro." Designed to explore some of the hottest and most violent events in the universe by analyzing invisible-from-Earth radiation in the ultraviolet and X-ray wavelengths, the observatory produced a wealth of scientific information during its first mission.

Hopkins astronomer Arthur Davidsen, HUT chief scientist, called Astro-1 "a spectacular scientific success" that "provided only our first glimpse, a very tantalizing one. There are still lots of old questions that remain unanswered and new ones we want to address."

An ebullient Mr. Durrance said yesterday he would be "delighted to fly again," even though his first ride in space was delayed nearly five years by the Challenger explosion, scheduling shifts and problems with the shuttle fleet. Crew selection for the reflight, tentatively scheduled for launch in October 1993, could come as early as this fall, he said.

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