December 8, 2004

Robotic Hubble Rescue Mission Uncertain

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- Trying to save the famed Hubble Space Telescope with a robot would cost $2 billion with just a 50-50 chance of success, an aerospace research group is advising NASA in the coming days.

And that thumbs-down is likely to be preceded by another potentially negative finding from the National Academy of Sciences, due to report on Wednesday.

Both reports could spell doom for the popular, aging Hubble, whose fans have lobbied heavily to get it repaired to prolong its life and continue its stream of stunning and revealing pictures from space.

NASA requested the reviews of the National Academy and the Aerospace Corp., a California-based nonprofit research group, in hopes that a robotic repair could be made.

An Aerospace Corp. summary provided to the academy estimates a robotic Hubble mission would cost $2 billion and would take at least five years to be ready for launch. By then there would be a less than 40 percent chance that Hubble still would be functioning.

Less than three years would be needed to launch a shuttle mission to Hubble, for no more money and with the usual medium risk of mission success, the company said.

The full 100-page report is expected to come out this week or next, a company spokesman said.

In an interim report over the summer, a National Academy panel of scientists, aerospace experts and astronauts who have worked in orbit with Hubble urged NASA to keep its options open for one last service call by space shuttle astronauts. The panel did not rule out a robotic mission but noted its complexity and the technical challenges.

But NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe has stuck by his guns that regardless of what the academy or the Aerospace Corp. says, no people will risk their lives to fix Hubble.

On Wednesday, the National Academy of Sciences will issue its final report on the subject.

"These reviews have tended to reinforce NASA's sense that although (a robotic mission) is feasible, it will be extremely challenging and will require very disciplined management," the space agency said in a statement Tuesday.

NASA will spend the coming year evaluating the robotic rescue plan and decide next summer whether to proceed. If nothing else, the space agency promises to launch a deorbit tug to guide Hubble down over the ocean - and not over populated areas - well before it would tumble in on its own during the next decade.

Even in old age, Hubble has become the hottest of potatoes.

The space agency should be used to that by now, after years of suffering through the space telescope's blurry vision and then celebrating the greatest space repair job of all time and rejoicing in the most astounding pictures of the cosmos ever seen.

"NASA thinks of these things as their own and they forget not only who paid for it, but that NASA did such an incredibly good job of publicizing it and getting the information out, it's just been adopted as a telescope that an awful lot of people care about," said retired NASA scientist Stephen Maran, author of the book "Astronomy for Dummies."

"Many people feel that the most important thing that the manned program did since the moon exploration is the repair and the servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope."

Hubble-huggers, as they're called, came out in droves after O'Keefe announced back in January that astronauts would no longer fly to Hubble - which will be 15 years old this spring. O'Keefe said he based his decision on safety standards since the Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts.

Saving Hubble Will Be Costly

OUTLOOK FOR HUBBLE: The newest report on a plan to save the popular, aging space telescope by repairing it with a robot says it would cost $2 billion and have just a 50-50 chance of working.

WHAT'S NEXT? NASA will take months reviewing that report and one due Wednesday from the National Academy of Sciences that also won't likely be rosy.

THEN WHAT? If NASA rules out robot repair, it likely will launch a craft to guide Hubble down over the ocean.


On the Net:

NASA: http://hubble.gsfc.nasa.gov/

National Academy of Sciences: http://www.nas.edu/