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Why Let The Hubble Telescope Go To Junk?


Two days after President Bush announced his ambitious plan to send men to the moon again and also to Mars, with long-range thoughts of colonization, NASA announced that it was scrapping the Hubble space telescope.


It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the politics of that. With all of the federal dollars being funneled into a new propulsion system for long-range space travel, NASA's coveted little programs, including Hubble, were suddenly threatened with losing the money needed to keep them going.


The official government line, however, is that the decision is not related to the Bush space plan. According to NASA Director Sean O'Keefe the reason involves the safety of the crew in light of the loss of the shuttle Columbia in February 2003.


O'Keefe said all shuttle flights from now on will be to the International Space Station so crew members will have a "lifeboat" in space in case of trouble. Since Hubble is not in an orbit from which it is also possible to reach the space station, NASA has decided maintenance of the telescope is now too dangerous and costly.


Hubble's next expected servicing mission was expected in 2005. Planned were the installation of two new instruments, a wide field camera and cosmic origins spectrometer.


Since its launch in 1990, and repair of design problems in 1993, the Hubble telescope has revolutionized our knowledge of the universe. The spectacular images it continues to send have helped measure the size of the universe, proven the existence of black holes and given astronomers glimpses of the formation of infant galaxies. The telescope also has found planets in other solar systems capable of bearing life.


That single telescope has taught us more about the universe around us in the last few years than astronomers ever learned from the most advanced telescopes developed on the surface of our planet. Now that our air is polluted with an ugly brown haze from carbon fuel burning, the view from Earth is dimmer than it has ever been.


The NASA decision to abandon this valuable instrument was unexpected and suspiciously sudden following the Bush announcement. Only weeks before, Steven Beckwith, the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, talked about how much he looked forward to the new equipment that was going to be installed on the telescope in 2005.


He said the Hubble is working more efficiently now than it was when it was new, and he predicted that the performance would even get better.


Not only that, but plans were in the works for launching an even larger and more powerful replacement, the James Webb Telescope, in 2012. Beckwith said he hoped the Hubble could survive until the replacement was in operation.

The New York Times acquired a NASA engineering report that challenges O'Keefe's conclusion that servicing the Hubble would be too dangerous. The report said NASA's plan was to design a shuttle with tools, materials and instruments giving the crew the ability to inspect and repair disabled shield tiles and other problems without relying on dockage at the space station.

The papers also conclude that missions to Hubble "are as safe as or perhaps saver than" space station missions and it suggests that both missions can be conducted within the same flight.

If the Bush Administration gets it way, and the Hubble program is abandoned, the worlds finest telescope will begin to fail and stop working altogether, possibly as early as 2007 or 2008, one report stated.

Left on its own, Hubble is expected to fall back to earth sometime in 2012. And that may be a major problem. Beckwith was quoted by BBC News as saying that the equipment is so large, parts of it will not burn up on re-entry and reach the ground. There is a chance of human casualties.


The NASA plan, when Hubble was retired, was to attach a propulsion module to the telescope so it could be guided back to Earth on a predictable track, and strike at some uninhabited part of the world.


If we can spend billions of taxpayer dollars fighting senseless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and building a massive military program for world dominance, it seems that saving the Hubble telescope would certainly be within the grasp of our government.