Hubble redux

August 11, 2004

THE CAMPAIGN of pleas, proposals and political pitches worked. All the letters, lobbying and legions of ideas on how to save the Hubble Space Telescope paid off. NASA's top administrator, who had scrapped a manned space mission to repair the aging Hubble, has reversed course.

The lesson: Don't take no for an answer. Steven V. W. Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore that manages Hubble, put it slightly differently: "Keep the faith."

Hubble, whose astonishing views of planets, black holes and deep space have mesmerized the world, had been given the proverbial pink slip. After the explosion of the shuttle Columbia, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe decided in January that the cost and risk of sending astronauts to replace key instruments on Hubble in 2006 were too great. He wouldn't budge, despite Hubble's remarkable resume, stunning photographs and serious scientific achievements. Once Hubble's instruments gave out, its work would end and the telescope would eventually free-fall back to Earth.

But the staff at Baltimore's space institute refused to give up on the telescope, despite the view from the top. If a manned mission was the problem, they would find another way to repair Hubble. U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski rose to the telescope's defense and pushed for a second opinion, a scientific review on how to extend Hubble's space life. All the while the telescope's viewing public was weighing in -- hundreds of e-mails, thousands of petition signatures, letters, all to save Hubble. The outpouring befitted NASA's star scope.

Then the science experts recommended that Hubble be given a second chance. NASA should rule out nothing to repair it, including a space mission. And then came Mr. O'Keefe's surprise announcement Monday. He told agency engineers to investigate a robotics solution to fix Hubble. It's a smart proposition.

Investing in robotics can have benefits beyond Hubble, both in expanding repair missions and extending their life. When astronauts travel into space on a repair mission, they are limited to a 10-day trip. But once the robotic technology is developed, such flights could be carried out for a longer time, at the outer reaches of space and for less money.

We won't know for another six months what form or shape the robotic mission might take, or if it's feasible. But have no fear, someone will find a way to keep the 14-year-old Hubble scoping out the far reaches of space until at least 2010. And if anyone has any doubts about Hubble's potential to please for another decade, take a look at what it's beaming back this week: the changing faces of an infant star.

That's our Hubble!

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