Lawmakers question fate of Hubble

NASA officials criticized for failure to fund rescue

February 18, 2005|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - In their first opportunity to face NASA administrators since the agency's budget ruled out repairs to the ailing Hubble Space Telescope, members of Congress questioned yesterday why a repair mission had seemingly evaporated after growing enthusiasm for the idea.

Of the $93 million for the Hubble in the budget proposed last week, $75 million was earmarked for a suicide craft that will guide the telescope into a final descent into the ocean once its usefulness has run out, while $18 million was to be used for software upgrades that would allow Hubble to continue doing science after its worn-out parts inevitably begin to fail.

The House Science Committee heard testimony from NASA officials yesterday about the agency's proposed $16.5 billion budget for the coming year. The fiscal 2006 budget, directed by the White House, includes $858 million for Mars and lunar exploration, but would reduce spending in some science programs, including Hubble.

"Congress has never endorsed, in fact has never discussed, the vision," said committee chairman Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican.

Hubble is aging quickly. The telescope will plunge to Earth in 2012 unless it gets upgrades and a boost into higher orbit. Safety concerns have hamstrung plans to rescue the satellite since early last year, when departing NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said the benefits of prolonging Hubble's life through a space shuttle servicing visit were not worth the risk to the crew. A proposal to fix the Hubble with a remote-control robot has been all but dismissed as impractical. Recent studies have indicated that a shuttle mission would not be as dangerous as thought.

Congress members questioned budget proposals for 28 flights to the International Space Station in coming years, but none to fix Hubble.

"The Hubble telescope in a week will do more and better science than we are likely to do in the lifetime of the International Space Station," said Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, a Michigan Republican. "What I see before me now very much appears to me to be justifying a decision that was made in haste."

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