Mikulski addresses Hubble's work force

Telescope's fate unknown as decision is reviewed

January 31, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski boosted worker morale at Baltimore's Space Telescope Science Institute yesterday and ended up getting a boost of her own -- two standing ovations.

Mikulski, a Democrat, told about 400 workers in a packed auditorium at the Baltimore facility that NASA's administrator has agreed to a review of his decision to trim up to four years from the life of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is operated by the institute. But the senator said she didn't want to raise false hopes.

"I want to be clear that I don't want to raise false expectations. I just want you to know that you're not in this alone," Mikulski said, eliciting applause from the scientists.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about NASA's plans for the Hubble Space Telescope that appeared in Saturday's editions erroneously described a previous Space Shuttle repair mission. That mission installed corrective optics but did not replace the Hubble's mirror.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe announced plans to cancel a 2006 space shuttle mission that would have kept Hubble peering into space until 2010. He listed safety and cost factors as chief reasons.

O'Keefe's decision to cancel the Hubble shuttle flight followed President Bush's directive Jan. 8 that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration focus on manned space flight and complete the International Space Station, which will require several shuttle flights.

But O'Keefe agreed Wednesday to have retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr. review the decision after prodding from Mikulski. Gehman was chairman of the panel that reviewed safety concerns after the Columbia disaster last year.

A longtime supporter of NASA, Mikulski said Hubble should be saved because of its scientific value, not just because it means hundreds of jobs at the institute on the Johns Hopkins University campus and at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. She referred to the work force as a "genius club" and reminded them of Hubble's accomplishments.

"Hubble has become the most successful space program since Apollo, and it should not be canceled with just the stroke of a pen," she said.

State Sen. E.J. Pipkin, Mikulski's likely Republican opponent in this year's U.S. Senate race, accused her of using the issue to promote her campaign and of failing to ensure Hubble's future.

"Clearly, this campaign is going to be about jobs, jobs, jobs," said Pipkin, who is from the Eastern Shore. "I think she was asleep at the switch."

But Steven Beckwith, the institute's director, credited Mikulski for supporting Hubble as far back as 1990, when she secured $40 million for repairs soon after its launch.

"Without her, the institute wouldn't be here," Beckwith said when he introduced her to workers yesterday.

The institute's employees said they appreciate Mikulski's efforts but doubt whether the review will mean saving Hubble.

"It gives me some hope, but it's hard to argue with the safety issues that have been raised," said Richard Kidwell, a software engineer from Baltimore.

Howard Bushouse, an institute astronomer, said O'Keefe's decision Jan. 16 to cut short Hubble's life span caught many by surprise.

"It's just that the Hubble mission has been so successful," he said.

Hubble, launched in 1990, has beamed back images that have confirmed the existence of black holes, charted weather patterns on Mars and determined the age of the universe (13.7 billion years). By some estimates, it has provided astronomers with a third of what has been learned from NASA's discoveries.

NASA officials plan to replace the Hubble with the $1.6 billion James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to be launched in 2011. The institute has won a contract to manage Webb's operations.

Mikulski expressed confidence in Gehman. "He will know whether this is a smoke screen to get rid of Hubble for a lot of other reasons," she said.

In studying the Columbia disaster, the panel Gehman led recommended that shuttle astronauts be able to exit the craft for emergency inspections and repairs, and that shuttles have emergency rescue capabilities, such as a backup shuttle ready for launch. NASA adopted those recommendations, which will raise costs for shuttle flights.

The last Hubble servicing mission, in 2001, cost NASA $400 million in shuttle improvements alone. But another servicing mission would cost considerably more because of the new safety requirements.

NASA has dispatched four missions to improve and repair the telescope, including replacing a flawed mirror that severely hampered early observations. The 2006 mission would have replaced the gyroscopes, which enable the telescope to remain steady in space. The mission would also have installed a sensitive new camera and a spectrograph capable of observing objects in ultraviolet light.

Unresolved is how NASA intends to bring down Hubble. Before the Columbia disaster, NASA wanted to bring the telescope back to Earth in one piece for public display. But those plans are up in the air.

Scientists have been exploring using an expendable vehicle to nudge Hubble out of orbit and bring it down in an unpopulated area of the Pacific Ocean.

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