Hubble backer to quit his post

Space institute director won't seek new term in '05

`Time ... to conclude my service'

Beckwith has urged NASA to extend telescope's life

July 17, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who waged a highly visible battle with NASA to extend the life of the Hubble Space Telescope, said yesterday that he will step down in September next year to avoid further trouble for the institute.

Although colleagues insisted that he was not forced out, Steven V.W. Beckwith said in a statement that the "strong public advocacy" that Hubble's crisis required "gave me a high level of visibility that could jeopardize what I can achieve for the community in the future."

His decision came after an encouraging report from the National Academy of Sciences that urged the National Aeronautics and Space Administration not to rule out a shuttle mission to Hubble. Given that, Beckwith wrote, "Now is the right time for me to conclude my service at a high point."

In January, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe scrubbed the shuttle's final mission to repair Hubble and install new equipment that would have extended the telescope's life to 2010. Without the service, the telescope could fail as early as 2007. Since O'Keefe's announcement, Hubble's scientific, political and public backers have fought to reverse the decision and keep Hubble aloft.

Beckwith was not available for comment. But Cheryl Gundy, a spokeswoman for the institute, said Beckwith "has been ... like a salmon swimming upstream."

His vocal advocacy for Hubble "has put the institute in an awkward position, in that we are NASA contractors supporting two missions," she said. "It makes our ongoing relationship with NASA stressful."

Beckwith has been director of the Space Telescope Science Institute since 1998. He was reappointed last year to a two-year term that ends Sept. 1, 2005. Yesterday's announcement means that he will not seek another term.

The institute is on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University, but it is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc. (AURA).

The institute's staff of 400 has managed Hubble's scientific programs since before its launch in 1990 and will continue to do so for the rest of its useful life.

In June last year, Beckwith signed a $162 million contract with NASA to manage research on the space agency's $824 million James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2011.

Beckwith announced his decision to step down yesterday at an afternoon staff meeting. When he finished and invited questions, nobody spoke up, according to his deputy, Mike Hauser.

"I'm sure it [the decision] was a surprise to the staff," he said. "They've been very supportive of his advocacy [for Hubble], although they have been expressing some consternation about whether the interaction with NASA was going to be perhaps a future problem."

Beckwith's advocacy for Hubble and the institute are not new. A staff member who was present yesterday said Beckwith told employees that the institute's charter required him to be an independent source of scientific leadership and advice to NASA. He said his advocacy was the right scientific thing to do, even if it irritated the agency.

Beckwith led the institute's successful bid to manage Hubble's eventual successor, the Webb telescope, and fought during his tenure to add additional capabilities to Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 - one of two new instruments that were to be installed on the canceled servicing mission.

Hauser said Beckwith was also an advocate of an earlier decision to install cooling equipment to revive one of Hubble's key instruments.

"That played a key role in Hubble's ability to make those measurements that demonstrate quite conclusively now that the expansion of the universe is accelerating," Hauser said. "It's about the hottest topic in physics and astronomy these days."

Beckwith also allocated a block of telescope time he controlled to scientists who pushed Hubble's view of the cosmos to its limits. The project produced an image of thousands of young galaxies in what is now called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

"On the science front, he's clearly been an outstanding leader," Hauser said. "It's just what this institution is supposed to be doing."

Beckwith spoke out again last winter when O'Keefe announced that he was canceling the shuttle servicing mission to Hubble - largely because he said it could not meet safety concerns raised by the board investigating the space shuttle Columbia disaster. The mission was to install two new scientific instruments and replace batteries and gyroscopes.

O'Keefe said in March that it would be "fundamentally irresponsible" of him to reverse his decision to cancel the mission.

Beckwith's voice was heard with those of other scientists, private citizens and such lawmakers as Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who pushed O'Keefe to reconsider.

The NASA official agreed to consider a robotic mission to service Hubble. But Beckwith expressed reservations about a robot's ability to do the job.

O'Keefe did not change his mind. But he agreed to ask the National Academy of Sciences to study the comparative risks and scientific payoffs of robotic and manned servicing missions. In an interim report released Wednesday, an academy panel urged NASA to keep all its options open for at least a year.

That accomplished, staffers said, Beckwith believed that another term might hurt the institute's relationship with NASA.

Beckwith told his staff nothing yesterday about his plans. But he might not go far. He is a tenured astronomer at the institute and holds a tenured teaching position at Hopkins.

In a statement yesterday, AURA President William Smith said Beckwith "has done a tremendous job. ... AURA and the entire community will miss his energy and dedication."

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