Why Send a Manned-Mission to Service Hubble

Posted by barb on Jul 16, 2004 in Science Musings |

Robert Roy Britt, on Space.com, wrote a commentary on the latest push to use a manned mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, Commentary: On Saving Hubble, NASA Chief Listens with One Ear. I nearly stopped reading the piece when I read this:

Astronomers depend on it to investigate the most fundamental questions of astronomy and cosmology. It is often the best tool for the task, and sometimes the only tool. No replacement is on the drawing boards.

Britt should know better. He’s been writing for Space.com for a while, and should be aware of the James Webb Space Telescope, which was originally known as the Next Generation Space Telescope. It is a replacement for Hubble that has been under development for years. The problem is that JWST will not be launched until 2011, assuming it’s schedule doesn’t slip. If Hubble is left to die, it will likely not operate beyond 2007, which will leave a 4-year gap in space-based optical astronomy. Astronomers don’t want to lose that time if they don’t have to…Hubble is just too valuable to let die.

I continued reading, and while I agree in principle with Britt’s point that a manned-mission should be performed, I do not agree with the primary reasons he puts forth.

In defending the manned-mission, he writes:

Robots are great. But they lack, well, human drama. No reality show would seize public attention like a risky, vital, televised journey into the black void to rescue a great American treasure.

Which makes the manned-mission sound like a publicity stunt. The reason for a manned-mission is not to create a great TV opportunity for NASA. Rather, it is preferred by astronomers because astronauts will be more likely than robots to perform all of the planned service for Hubble.

The minimum job of any servicing mission to Hubble is to arrange for a save way to de-orbit the satellite, this part is mandated by Congress and would not be terribly difficult for a robotic mission to accomplish. The next level of the servicing mission is to replace the gyros and batteries, which would extend Hubble’s operational lifetime. This task could be difficult for a robot, but is certainly within the realm of possibility. The final level of the servicing mission is to install new instruments. It’s this last bit that would be fairly unlikely to happen with a robotic servicing mission, which would be a pity, too, since these instruments have already been constructed and represent exciting science possibilities. A manned mission would be able to accomplish all of the tasks, where there’s much uncertainty that a robotic mission would be able to do more than just ensure a save de-orbit of the satellite.

Britt also comments:

Robots are fearless. They face risk with nary a thought. They might save Hubble, and astronomers are overjoyed that O’Keefe is seriously considering a robotic mission to do the job. It might even lead to a technological leap in space robotics.

But the larger question O’Keefe must answer right now is whether humans, too, can stare down danger for a noble cause.

We are not going to get the American public (and more specifically, the congresspeople and NASA muckity-mucks) behind a manned-mission to Hubble with a play-ground-esque dare for NASA to jump back into spaceflight. We’ll accomplish more by arguing that when NASA is ready fly shuttles again that the science (and, yes, public-relations) benefits of a fully-functioning Hubble is worth the risk.

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