NASA chief promises to review decision not to service Hubble

Admiral who led panel on Columbia safety will be asked to examine issue

January 30, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

NASA has agreed to review its plans to cancel a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope and cut short its life span by up to four years.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe will ask retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr. to review the decision announced two weeks ago to scrub the final space shuttle flight to the Hubble.

The mission would have installed new scientific instruments, replaced critical targeting and power components, and ensured the telescope's useful life until 2010.

Without that mission, the Hubble - whose operations employ hundreds in Maryland - could cease operating as early as 2006.

Hubble, launched in 1990, has become a favorite worldwide, beaming back images of distant galaxies that have become staples for astronomy buffs and science teachers.

"I'm really very pleased that outside opinion is being sought," said Steven Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute on the Johns Hopkins University campus.

NASA officials said yesterday that Hubble's exact life span is unclear, but it could continue in service until at least 2008, depending on whether equipment continues to function.

"We still think there's still a lot of good science to be learned from Hubble," said Anne Kinney, who supervises Hubble's operations for NASA.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski wrote to O'Keefe last week asking him to appoint an independent panel of experts to review the decision to cancel the shuttle mission. Maryland's 10-member congressional delegation also wrote to O'Keefe urging him to reconsider and to support keeping the Hubble in service as long as possible.

"We have this spectacular telescope that has discovered spectacular things in the universe, to a point where it's developed its own following, worldwide," Mikulski said.

She said that when O'Keefe rejected her request Wednesday, she called him and persuaded him to have Gehman examine the issue.

A NASA spokesman said yesterday that Gehman is not being asked to impanel a group of experts and will make his decision "expeditiously."

"Admiral Gehman will provide an objective opinion as thoughtfully and as expeditiously as possible," said spokesman Glenn Mahone. "This is not something that's going to take months and months to accomplish."

Mikulski, who was scheduled to meet with employees of the Space Telescope Science Institute this morning, said details of the scope of Gehman's review still have to be discussed. But she expressed confidence in his abilities: "I think he has enormous stature and credibility."

Beckwith said he would prefer that Gehman appoint a panel of astronauts, mission safety engineers and other experts to help review O'Keefe's decision.

Two weeks ago, O'Keefe cited costs, safety concerns and President Bush's commitment to complete the International Space Station - which requires future shuttle flights - as factors in his decision.

The last Hubble servicing mission, in 2001, cost NASA $400 million in shuttle upgrades alone. But another servicing mission would cost considerably more because of flight safety requirements instituted after the Columbia shuttle broke apart Feb. 1, killing seven astronauts.

NASA has agreed to design future shuttle flights so that astronauts can exit the vehicle for emergency inspections and repairs, and that shuttle flights have emergency rescue capabilities, such as a back-up shuttle ready for launch.

Gehman was chairman of the board that came up with the safety recommendations.

Hubble has not only sent back startling images of the universe, but has kept hundreds of employees working at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Hubble is to be replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to be launched in 2011.

Ray Villard, a spokesman for the institute, said the institute's $60 million annual budget includes payroll for 350 staffers who work on Hubble and 40 working on the Webb telescope. An additional 500 employees at Goddard work on various Hubble functions.

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