The engineering control center in Baltimore that keeps a 24-hour watch on the health of the Hubble Space Telescope will go dark this summer as NASA moves its work to Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.
NASA said the transfer of the Hubble Flight Operations Team to Goddard will affect 17 Lockheed Martin contract employees who work at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
Preston M. Burch, Hubble program manager at Goddard, said the move was ordered to improve operational efficiency and tighten security in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The shift reverses a decision that originally brought the operations center to Baltimore from Goddard in 1999, Burch said.
Although Baltimore will lose some engineering positions, he said, "for the state of Maryland, there is no net gain or loss of jobs."
Bruce Margon, associate director for science at the space telescope institute, located on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University, shrugged off the move as being of "essentially no significance."
"We like them, and we think they're important," he said. But their move has no policy significance for Hubble science or the institute, Margon said.
"It's really an engineering function. They're not astronomers, and they're not even our employees," he said. "Our role is as a science center for Hubble. This is not a science function."
The institute in Baltimore employs about 370 people, Margon said. Of those, only 217 - including the flight operations team - work directly with Hubble. The rest work on development of the James Webb Space Telescope, on education and public outreach, data processing and business services.
The 16 to 18 engineers in the flight operations center work in shifts in the basement of the institute in Baltimore. They send commands to the orbiting observatory and monitor the telemetry coming back to the ground, Burch said.
Their job is to keep watch on the health and safety of the telescope. They make sure commands from the ground are received, that the astronomers' observations are carried out and that the science data is returned to Earth.
Burch said the center has traditionally provided entry-level positions for young engineers, many of whom later moved on to better jobs within NASA.
Their work was moved to Baltimore in 1999 to consolidate it with other planning and scheduling functions previously moved here from Goddard.
"We thought maybe we could achieve further savings by moving the control center up there and keeping it all together," Burch said. But "that turned out not to be terribly beneficial."
The move back to Goddard will put the operations center closer to other engineers responsible for Hubble's performance.
There has always been some redundancy at the two sites. Flight operations engineers typically shifted their work to Goddard during Hubble servicing missions, or to address major problems with the observatory.
But the work was "invisible to the science staff," Margon said. "Sometimes we go down there to show it to visitors and find they're not there because they're at Goddard."