NASA should launch a space shuttle to repair the Hubble Space Telescope rather than a robotic mission, according to a 21-member National Academy of Sciences panel. The finding, announced today, is at odds with the desires of NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, who has concerns about astronaut safety.
Worried about placing astronauts in an orbit beyond the safe haven of the international space station, NASA canceled the human servicing mission earlier this year (ScienceNOW, 20 January). That cancellation provoked the ire of Congress and the scientific community, and NASA then proposed a robotic mission to take care of the aging Hubble (ScienceNOW, 2 June). NASA also asked the academy to provide advice on Hubble's future.
The panel, chaired by physicist Lou Lanzerotti of the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, spent 6 months weighing the options. The unanimous conclusion is that flying a shuttle to repair Hubble systems and insert new instruments is worth the risk. "This is a mission which has been accomplished four times in the past," said panel member Richard Truly, a former NASA administrator, in a Washington press conference. "This is well within [NASA's] experience base."
The primary alternative is to develop a sophisticated robot to change out operating systems and instruments. But that likely could not be done before the Hubble begins to wear out late in the decade, the panel concluded. Even if it were launched in time, the technical odds for success would not be high. This finding is similar to one by The Aerospace Corp., which under contract to NASA will soon release a study determining that the robotic mission likely would be too complex and costly.
Lanzerotti says he and some members of the panel met last night with O'Keefe, who said NASA would consider the report's findings. Members of Congress, meanwhile, pledged to hold hearings on the matter early next year.
Hubble Space Telescope