Hubble on our mind

March 15, 2004

HUBBLE SPACE Telescope fans, enjoy those glorious pictures from the great beyond while you can. The photos shared with the public last week were beauties -- a kaleidoscope of competing galaxies and nascent stars. U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland is valiantly trying to extend the Hubble's working life, despite a NASA decision to the contrary. And we can't help but cheer her on.

Ms. Mikulski is waging an uphill fight, notwithstanding Hubble's stellar scientific contributions, popularity worldwide and continued slam-dunk performances. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe has canceled the 2006 servicing mission to upgrade Hubble, citing safety concerns raised by the investigation of the Columbia disaster. His resolve is understandable -- seven astronauts died on his watch in the fiery explosion of the shuttle as it returned to Earth.

But Ms. Mikulski has persuaded Mr. O'Keefe to pursue another review of a final Hubble repair mission, this time by the National Academy of Sciences and the General Accounting Office. Now that he has agreed to the reviews, we ask that Mr. O'Keefe keep an open mind about the results of the inquiries before relegating Hubble to a slow death. The telescope, whose operations are coordinated from an institute on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University, will cease to function in the next few years without replacement of key parts.

Mr. O'Keefe reiterated last week the difficulty of undertaking a Hubble repair mission that would comply with the new safety guidelines that arose from the Columbia accident investigation. No one is suggesting that safety isn't of paramount concern in this debate. A review of a solo shuttle mission to repair Hubble by retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., chairman of the Columbia disaster investigation panel, left open the possibility that a repair flight could be undertaken. But he ultimately concluded that "only a deep and rich study of the gain-risk equation" could determine if a servicing mission to Hubble would be worth the risks.

So, let's get on with the studies: The fate of Hubble should be decided once and for all.

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