WASHINGTON – NASA does not plan to send either a robot or manned shuttle to service the Hubble Space Telescope, with officials telling a congressional committee Thursday that such a mission is too dangerous.
Without such a mission, the orbiting telescope will deteriorate in another two or three years, but there are no funds in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s $16.5 billion fiscal 2006 budget to save the telescope.
Deputy Administrator Fred Gregory told the House Science Committee that risks associated with any telescope rescue mission are outweighed by NASA’s need to “ensure the absolute safety of the crew” of the space shuttle, in light of the Shuttle Columbia disaster two years ago.
Connecting Hubble with another orbiting vehicle is a “high-risk activity,” which NASA has never practiced before, he said.
But Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, pledged Thursday to fight “aggressively” to fund a servicing mission for Hubble, which is operated by Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.
“Hubble has dramatically changed our understanding of the universe and has produced thousands of extraordinary discoveries and it would be a loss to our nation to prematurely de-orbit this scientific treasure,” Hoyer said in a prepared statement.
NASA canceled the next scheduled Hubble servicing mission after the Columbia crash, but Congress last year added $300 million to the agency’s budget to restore a mission. And some lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing were reluctant to give up on a rescue mission.
“Hubble is such a tremendous asset,” said Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo. “Many of us believe there has to be a way to save it.”
Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., said no one can “guarantee absolute safety” in any type of space activity. But sending a shuttle to service Hubble is a “smaller risk” than the 28 shuttle flights planned to complete the International Space Station, he said.
Udall agreed, saying that the relative danger between servicing Hubble and the space station is “not a lot.”
William Readdy, associate administrator for space operations at NASA, said the remaining space station flights are not fixed, but could be adjusted after consultation with the space station’s international partners. If those flights are flexible, Ehlers said, one of the 28 flights should be “dedicated to save Hubble.”
As recently as last month, Macdonald, Dettwiler and Associates announced that it had signed a $154 million contract with NASA to build a robot to rescue Hubble.
The status of that contract is “still being reviewed and discussed,” said Michael Braukus, public affairs officer for NASA’s explorations systems. He said the decision to discontinue robotic missions to Hubble will be taken up next month.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., did not comment on Thursday’s hearing. But after President Bush released his fiscal 2006 budget last week, she said that she would fight to include funds for a Hubble servicing mission.
Hubble supporters said they are upset about NASA’s decision.
“I’m kind of surprised that NASA is so reluctant to send the shuttle,” said Jeffrey Guerber, vice president of National Capital Astronomers, a Washington-area group of astronomy enthusiasts. He noted that there were “100 successful missions before the loss of the Columbia and they’re (NASA) trying to fix the things that are wrong.”
The American Astronomical Society, a major supporter of Hubble, said it will review the testimony and budget, and hopes to release a statement in March.
“Hubble is a great telescope and could do more if it were serviced,” said Kevin Marvel, the society’s deputy executive officer.
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