NASA chief says he is adamant about scrapping voyage to Hubble

O'Keefe tells Congress he will seek other ways to repair telescope

March 12, 2004|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Citing new shuttle safety rules and his pledge to protect astronauts' lives, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said yesterday that it would be "fundamentally irresponsible" of him to reverse his decision to scrub a final maintenance mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

O'Keefe's remarks came as a surprise to senior lawmakers in Washington, who only a few hours earlier had exacted a pledge from the NASA chief to allow the National Academy of Sciences and Congress' General Accounting Office to study the merits of dispatching astronauts to maintain the telescope.

Without a tuneup to swap out failing batteries and gyroscopes, the famed instrument, which has revolutionized astronomers' understanding of the universe since its launch in 1990 - could fail as soon as 2007. The NASA chief later told reporters that while he was open to new ideas on prologing Hubble's life, he was not likely to budge on his decision keep the shuttle out of any repair plans.

"We're going to do our level best to find every creative way to extend this," O'Keefe told reporters. "There's a broad range of other alternatives and options beyond a Shuttle mission."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who has been leading the fight on Capitol Hill to save the telescope, said it was "unacceptable" for O'Keefe to make a firm decision on the Hubble servicing mission without consulting a wide range of experts about its risks and benefits.

"The future of the Hubble cannot be made by one person alone," she said.

Conclusion of others

Mikulski, a senior member of the committee that oversees NASA's budget, pointed out that she is not the only one to reach that conclusion.

Retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., former head of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, recommended yesterday that NASA conduct a more in-depth assessment before making a final decision.

O'Keefe himself had asked Gehman to review the decision after a political and scientific outcry greeted his Jan. 16 announcement that the shuttle mission would be canceled.

"Only a deep and rich study of the entire gain/risk equation can answer the question of whether an extension of the life of the wonderful Hubble telescope is worth the risks involved," Gehman wrote in a letter to Mikulski.

Mikulski and Sen. Christopher Bond, a Missouri Republican, have asked the National Science Foundation, an independent organization of the nation's top scientists and engineers, and the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigational arm, to explore the scientific and financial merits of a final mission.

In a letter to O'Keefe yesterday, Mikulski also requested that the agency "take no action to stop, suspend or terminate" any contracts or jobs connected to the final servicing mission until the study is complete.

A spokeswoman said the Maryland lawmaker is planning to introduce a Senate resolution today urging an independent review of the Hubble decision. The resolution would be similar to one introduced in the House last week by Rep. Mark Udall, a Democrat from Colorado.

O'Keefe, however, said he was unlikely to be persuaded.

He said a trip to Hubble would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the agency to meet new flight safety guidelines drafted by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in the wake of the 2003 shuttle crash.

The guidelines, for example, require that astronauts be able to examine and repair all the spacecraft's thermal tiles while in orbit. Broken wing tiles were identified as the main cause of the overheating that broke up the Columbia on re-entry 13 months ago.

O'Keefe added that new guidelines also require that astronauts be able to abandon the shuttle and get to the International Space Station if something goes wrong - which would be difficult if not impossible at the Hubble's higher orbit.

"Could we do this and take the risk? Sure," said O'Keefe. "But somebody else has to make that decision - not me."

Solutions sought

The NASA chief was optimistic that engineers at the National Academy of Sciences or within the agency could devise a creative solution to repairing Hubble, which has fading batteries and several failing gyroscopes - devices needed to point the telescope at its target.

One possibility NASA is already considering, O'Keefe said, was a robotic repair mission to bring the telescope a new power supply and other components.

But some astronomers familiar with the telescope were skeptical yesterday. "We have no experience with robotic servicing of such a complex satellite as Hubble," said Steven V.W. Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, the Homewood-based organization that oversees Hubble's scientific operations.

Beckwith said that Hubble was designed to be serviced by the shuttle and has already benefited from three flawless repair missions, which together required 18 space walks.

"We know the shuttle is able to go to Hubble and fix it with very little technical risk," he said.

Responding to reporters' questions yesterday, O'Keefe reiterated that the decision to cancel the final Hubble repair mission in January was painful.

"It's the most unpopular decision I could have made - there's no doubt about that," he said. "My e-mail system is clogged every day" with complaints.

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