New hope for the troubled Hubble
But servicing the space-based telescope is affecting other high-priority initiatives as NASA funding gets tighter.
In a space saga worthy of the "Perils of Pauline," the on-again, off-again Hubble Space Telescope appeared to be headed for an untimely end. Victimized by the Columbia shuttle disaster, not to mention budget pressures, one of the most highest-profile ambassadors of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration appeared doomed.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, Hubble's prospects are brightening. What was to be a $175 million effort to "deorbit" Hubble has become a $291 million program to keep alive the option of servicing and upgrading the telescope so it can continue functioning at least until 2010. A final decision will depend on how well the shuttles perform when they return to flight, now scheduled for mid-July.
"All of us are very happy, excited, and gratified," says Preston Burch, program manager for the telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "But we're also aware of the caveats. It's no slam-dunk."
The latest effort, however, may also illustrate the old warning: Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.
Much of the current space-science program in the United States was planned at the end of the 1990s in a fiscal universe far more flush with cash than today. No one foresaw 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the space shuttle Columbia disaster and its subsequent demands for improvements to the remaining shuttles. In addition, this year's NASA budget contains some $426 million in congressional "earmarks" - spending neither the agency nor the administration sought.
Thus, helping Hubble affects several other projects identified as high priorities in the space community's "Decadal Survey," published in 2000. NASA administrator Michael Griffin has deferred work on next- generation space telescopes such as the Space Interferometer Mission and the Terrestrial Planet Finder to keep the Hubble service mission alive.
Some astronomers who support a servicing mission aren't happy about the deferments. But "there will be plenty more chapters to this story," says Robert Kirshner, president of the American Astronomical Society.
Given the demands of the shuttle's return to flight, President Bush's vision for manned space exploration, and Congress's own fondness for certain projects, the addition of a Hubble servicing mission makes NASA's budget choices increasingly stark.
As if to underscore the point, the administration's budget request for NASA at the beginning of this year set no money aside to service Hubble. NASA's former administrator had balked at mounting a previously scheduled servicing mission after the Columbia disaster, concluding that the mission was too risky. Instead, the agency was expected to figure out how to deorbit the telescope safely in 2007.
Nevertheless, Hubble had legions of supporters. The American Astronomical Society, for example, threw its support behind a servicing mission. In a March statement, it urged NASA to "include the space-science communities in an assessment of the relative scientific merits of all impacted missions" if the mission produced "adverse budget consequences."
What would astronomers get from a servicing mission? Two new cameras with an ambitious research agenda, according to Steven Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.