It's a go, Hubble

November 01, 2006

NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin's decision yesterday to approve a repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope has the potential to expand and extend the observatory's reach into the universe. But that's not the only reason to applaud. It's a nod toward the importance of generating science and advancing projects with that aim, especially when traveling to Mars has become the latest fascination in Washington. Hubble may have popularized astronomy with its stunning array of images from space. But its legacy will be the scientific achievements made since its launch 16 years ago.

The go-ahead for the Hubble mission reversed a decision by the previous NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe, who scrapped the repair flight because of safety concerns stemming from the 2003 loss of the space shuttle Columbia and the shuttle fleet's age. Mr. Griffin agreed to reconsider the mission, but conditioned approval on successive and successful shuttle flights. There have been three since the Columbia tragedy.

NASA engineers and technicians deserve credit for laying the groundwork to support a Hubble repair mission. They have shown due diligence in the post-Columbia years in securing the integrity of the shuttle fleet and safety for its crews. They have addressed the problems of foam insulation breaking off that led to the Columbia explosion, and shuttle crews have shown their ability to repair minor damages to a ship's heat shields.

The Hubble repair flight, scheduled for 2008, will be carried out by a crew aboard shuttle Discovery that will refit Hubble with new gyroscopes, batteries and more-refined instruments. Mr. Griffin had the foresight to ready his troops for a possible repair mission. Astronauts have been doing mock runs of the intricate Hubble repairs. NASA also will have a second shuttle on deck to respond to an emergency. These steps enhance the chances of a successful mission, the last before the fleet retires in 2010.

Maryland has an obvious stake in extending Hubble's work life: Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt operates the observatory, and the Space Telescope Science Institute on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University manages Hubble's science.

In its 16 years, the space telescope has taken astronomers farther into the universe. Not literally, of course, but through its intergalactic images. A successful repair mission could mean an extra five years of more detailed observations from Hubble. That's an enticing prospect for NASA and everyone with an eye toward the heavens.

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