WASHINGTON – Lawmakers and scientists agreed Wednesday that achievements of the threatened Hubble Space Telescope have been so sweeping that different ways to save the program demand a serious look.
But the consensus ended there.
At a hearing before the House Science Committee, witnesses advanced three options to save the Hubble program, defending their own plans while roundly undercutting the others. And witnesses as well as committee members said that cost would have to be weighed against the benefits of keeping Hubble alive.
“I would dearly love to save the telescope,” said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., the committee chairman, in his opening statement. “But this can’t be an emotional decision.”
Missing from the debate were representatives of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the White House, who will go a long way toward determining the future of the Hubble program in the fiscal 2006 budget scheduled to be released Monday.
But committee members did not want to wait for the budget to begin discussions on the Hubble, which could fail as soon as 2007 without a NASA service mission.
Hubble, launched in 1990, is a telescope parked in space, where it can see far beyond the galaxy because it does not have to contend with the blurring effect of the Earth’s atmosphere.
The space telescope, managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, has captured images of black holes in other galaxies and found evidence that the universe is expanding at a faster rate than previously thought, among other findings.
But the telescope’s future was put in doubt after the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003 grounded the shuttle fleet. That left no shuttle flight to perform a scheduled service mission on Hubble in 2004.
After a public outcry, and pressure from lawmakers, NASA asked the National Academy of Sciences to review options for saving Hubble.
But the space agency has not committed to the academy’s recommendation that a manned mission be launched to service Hubble, and recent published reports have said that the Bush administration will not fund a service mission in fiscal 2006.
A manned mission was one of the three options put forward Wednesday. Sending astronauts to do the fairly routine upkeep on Hubble would keep the telescope in space through about 2013.
But Paul Cooper said in a statement to the committee that, “Risking astronaut lives to change batteries seems shortsighted.” Cooper is vice president of a company that is building a robotic arm to work on Hubble, another option that was first offered by NASA last year.
Others criticized the robotic rescue as riskier than other options, saying a machine cannot do the work with the finesse of a human and saying it is not clear that a robot can be ready in time to reach Hubble.
Finally, a professor from Johns Hopkins University described a plan to send up a new telescope that would carry faster, better equipment that had originally been destined for Hubble. Professor Colin Norman said the “free-flyer mission” could be launched by 2010.
But some argued that the new telescope would have a narrower range of abilities. And it would not be ready until some years after the current Hubble is expected to run down, leaving a gap in collecting information that some on the panel said would be a significant loss.
Still, said Norman and others, something should be done.
“The moment now has come to decide whether to proceed with the Hubble science mission with any of the three options before us,” Norman said. “The decision is obvious. We must continue with the Hubble adventure to explore these great questions further, to understand more fully our remarkable universe and our place in it.”
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