Sunday, February 08, 2004

Hubble Defense?

Engineer's Papers Dispute Hubble Decision
NASA's decision to abandon its crown scientific jewel, the Hubble Space Telescope, cannot be justified on safety grounds, according to a pair of reports by a NASA engineer that have been circulating in scientific and political circles in the last few days.

The unsigned documents are attracting attention on Capitol Hill, particularly in the House Science Committee, which is expected to discuss the Hubble decision at a meeting on Thursday.

We're reviewing the Hubble decision, looking at it very closely,' said a spokesman for Representative Sherwood Boehlert, Republican of New York and chairman of the committee. 'We're going to be examining the views in this particular document as well as a whole host of others.'

The documents have also created a buzz among astronomers, who hope that their wider distribution will help spark a larger debate about the telescope's fate. The reports have deepened astronomers' skepticism that safety and not politics and money was the issue last month when Sean O'Keefe, the NASA administrator, announced the cancellation of the space shuttle's planned 2006 maintenance visit to the telescope. As a result, the telescope will probably die in orbit within three years, astronomers say, instead of lasting into the early part of the next decade as originally planned.

In explaining his decision, Mr. O'Keefe had cited a recommendation of the board that investigated the Columbia space shuttle disaster last year that NASA must develop a way to inspect and repair damage to the shuttle's thermal protection system.

While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was committed to developing this ability for missions to the International Space Station, which could serve as a 'safe haven' for the astronauts if the shuttle was damaged, Mr. O'Keefe said it was too risky and expensive to develop an 'autonomous' inspection and repair capability for a single mission to the telescope.

The new reports challenge Mr. O'Keefe's conclusion, citing data and references from NASA documents in arguing that the administrator's statement 'cannot be supported.'

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommendations and NASA's plans for 'return to flight' include ultimately developing just such an ability to inspect and repair the tiles independently of the station. That autonomous ability is needed because the shuttle might fail to make it to the space station, or the space station may become too big and complex to serve as a repair base, according to the papers.

One of the reports concludes that missions to the telescope 'are as safe as or perhaps safer than' space station missions 'conducted in the same time frame.'

The author is a NASA engineer who wrote the reports based on internal data and who declined to be identified for fear of losing his job. Copies of the documents were provided to The New York Times by an astronomer who is not part of NASA and opposes the decision to let the telescope die.

It ain't over, 'til it's over and, fortunately, there's time to evaluate this decision and save Hubble from it's otherwise inevitable demise.


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