NASA nominee holds out hope for Hubble mission

Astronauts could be sent to rescue telescope when shuttles fly again, he says

April 13, 2005|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

President Bush's nominee to be the next NASA administrator offered a flicker of hope yesterday that astronauts might be sent to service and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope one last time.

Michael Griffin, head of the space department at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory near Laurel, told the Senate Commerce Committee he would reassess the possibility of a manned mission to the telescope after NASA's shuttle fleet starts flying again. Griffin is expected to win Senate confirmation this week to succeed former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, who resigned in December.

NASA hopes to launch the shuttle Discovery next month to dock with the International Space Station, the first flight since the Columbia accident in February 2003.

Robotic mission unlikely

Griffin offered lawmakers little hope that a robotic servicing mission to Hubble, which has been studied by teams at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, would get off the ground.

Such a mission appears to be too costly, he told the committee, adding that he would "like to take the robotic mission off the table."

Without servicing, Hubble's batteries and gyroscopes are expected to break down as early as 2007, leaving the telescope cold and crippled. Experts are working on operational changes that might extend the observatory's useful life by a year or two. They are said to be making good progress.

Griffin's willingness to reconsider a shuttle rescue seemed to reverse O'Keefe's steadfast rejection of the idea as a result of safety concerns raised by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. It was a glimmer of hope that did not go unnoticed.

"I think we all read it the way you did," said Mark Borkowski, program executive for a Hubble servicing mission at National Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters. "People who are strong advocates of Hubble will be encouraged by that."

Steven V.W. Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said, "From my point of view, it's a positive development. He expressed an admiration for the science Hubble has done and a willingness to take another look at a servicing mission with the shuttle once they return to flight.

"I think [Griffin's remarks] will be a disappointment for the Goddard team," Beckwith said. But "the Hubble team is grateful that the original decision not to service Hubble might be revisited."

Goddard's design review for a robotic rescue was cut short and wrapped up last month. A panel of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences concluded in December that the possibility of success was "remote." And in February, the Bush administration's new budget proposal dropped funding for Hubble servicing missions.

Borkowski said the Goddard team was "extremely disappointed. ... The folks who had been working on this program put their hearts and souls into it. They performed well, probably better than most people would have expected."

Senate Commerce Committee members hailed yesterday the president's choice of Griffin to lead the space agency. They said it is urgent to get him to work before next month's planned shuttle launch, the first since the Columbia broke up during re-entry over Texas and Louisiana on Feb. 1, 2003.

A vote on the nomination that was scheduled for yesterday was delayed when Sen. George F. Allen, a Virginia Republican, sought information from Griffin on such issues as administration plans to cut NASA's budget for aeronautics research. About 1,000 jobs at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia could be lost under Bush's proposed budget.

Maryland native

Griffin, 55, a Maryland native, told the committee that he wholeheartedly endorses the administration's vision for resuming shuttle flights, completing the space station and sending astronauts back to the moon and, eventually, to Mars.

"The United States needs to look in new directions and look beyond where we have been in the last several decades," he said.

Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski introduced Griffin to the committee and praised his diverse training, calling him "a rare combination of a scientist, an engineer and a manager. I, of course, want to save the Hubble and hope that Dr. Griffin is an able partner in this."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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