Experts call on NASA to save Hubble with shuttle mission

Plan to use robot unlikely to work, panel reports

December 09, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

NASA should launch a shuttle mission to save the Hubble Space Telescope because its plan to use a robot to repair the instrument is unlikely to work, a panel of experts convened by the National Research Council recommended yesterday.

In a report commissioned by Congress, the group urged the space agency to fix and upgrade the world's premier observatory before breakdowns turn it into space junk - which could happen as early as 2007.

"A shuttle mission is the best option for extending the life of the Hubble telescope, and ultimately de-orbiting it safely," said committee Chairman Louis J. Lanzerotti, a consultant for Lucent Technologies and a professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

After months of study, his panel of scientists and engineers concluded that a shuttle flight to Hubble - the fifth since 1993 - would be only slightly more risky than the manned missions NASA is scheduling to complete the International Space Station.

They also found that a robotic rescue mission under review by engineers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is unlikely to fly before 2010 - three years later than Goddard expects and too late to prevent breakdowns that would cripple the observatory.

An internal analysis by a NASA contractor that came to light earlier this week drew much the same conclusion.

After the breakup of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, which killed seven astronauts, NASA canceled a manned Hubble tuneup mission planned for 2005, a decision that would have left the telescope dead in space within three years.

But pressure from scientists, Congress and ordinary citizens who have marveled at Hubble's spectacular images forced the agency to reconsider - the main question being how to keep Hubble alive.

There was no indication that the committee's report would change NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe's decision to pursue a robotic rescue because of his conviction that a manned mission is too risky.

Lanzerotti said members of his group met this week with O'Keefe and found him willing to consider the committee's arguments. "His comments ... were that they would take the report and look at it very carefully and do an analysis," Lanzerotti said.

But NASA spokesman Robert Mirelson said the agency is still convinced by the conclusions of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which wants a "safe haven" available if a shuttle is damaged in flight. Although astronauts sent to the International Space Station could take refuge there if problems occur, a shuttle mission to Hubble provides no such haven.

"Safety remains the top priority, Mirelson said.

Even so, scientists were relieved that the committee gave Hubble's survival a high priority. Steven V.W. Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said it was "good news for science" that both NASA and the National Research Council believe the telescope is worth rescuing - whatever the means.

On one hand, he said, a robot rescue would be difficult and risky, but it would advance the technology NASA needs for future missions. On the other hand, "We know that shuttle servicing works - we don't know that robotic servicing works."

Michael E. Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology and a Hubble client, said the cost of a robotic rescue could divert funds from other worthy science missions. But he said he has qualms about a manned flight, too:

"I'd have a hard time telling somebody that I'd like to use the space telescope to do something, and therefore I want you to risk your life to do it."

Lanzerotti's panel includes two Nobel laureates, three former astronauts and a who's-who of distinguished scientists, engineers, corporate and military leaders and risk-management experts.

It was convened last spring by the National Research Council, a private, nonprofit society of the nation's top scholars created to advise the federal government on science and technology.

Its final report endorsing the shuttle option throws a new spotlight on NASA's struggle to get the aging shuttle fleet flying safely again. The shuttle's lifting capacity is critical to America's international commitments to complete the space station. The first flight is now expected no sooner than May 2005.

The Orlando Sentinel reported this week that NASA believes it can now prevent large chunks of debris from falling off the shuttle's external fuel tank during launch. One of those pieces punctured Columbia's wing and doomed the crew. Future astronauts will also be able to inspect the shuttle for damage, but the agency said there's still no way for the crew to repair it.

On the issue of a "safe haven" for astronauts, the Lanzerotti committee said NASA could have a rescue shuttle ready to fly if Hubble repairmen get into trouble. In 1995, they noted, NASA launched flights less than two weeks apart.

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