- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA should use astronauts, not a robot, for a crucial life-prolonging mission to the acclaimed Hubble Space Telescope (HST), a National Academy of Sciences panel concluded yesterday.

Using a robot would be highly uncertain, costly and could take too long, the committee of scientists, engineers and astronauts said. But NASA’s chief has vowed that as long as he is in charge, he will not risk astronauts to keep the 14-year-old telescope beaming back snapshots of the cosmos for another five years.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe repeatedly has asserted that a Hubble mission would be riskier to the astronauts than a shuttle flight to the International Space Station (ISS). However, the academy committee found little difference in risk.

“The committee finds that the difference between the risk faced by the crew of a single shuttle mission to ISS — already accepted by NASA and the nation — and the risk faced by the crew of a single-shuttle servicing mission to HST is very small,” the committee wrote in its 135-page report, which was requested by Congress.

George Washington University’s John Logsdon, a member of the board that investigated the Columbia accident that killed seven astronauts, said “there is a pretty clear-cut answer” to all of this — based on the academy’s findings and an Aerospace Corp. study, expected soon, that also dismisses a robotic mission as a viable option.

The Aerospace Corp. has estimated a robotic effort could cost $2 billion, about the same as the cost of sending astronauts. It would have a 50-50 chance of success.

The answer, Mr. Logsdon said, is to cancel the robot plan, proceed toward a shuttle mission while continuing to assess its safety, and wait as long as possible before deciding whether to launch astronauts a fifth and final time to the Hubble.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had no immediate comment on the academy’s findings, but on Tuesday reiterated it would press ahead toward a potential robotic mission and make a final decision next summer.

In its report, based on six months of analysis, the 21-member academy committee expressed concern that some of the Hubble’s equipment could degrade so much over the next few years that the observatory would be impossible to fix or could not be safely steered into an ocean grave. NASA estimates put the end of scientific observations at 2007 or 2008, barring any intervention.

The committee expressed skepticism that such a complicated robotic mission could be launched within the 3 years proposed by NASA.

“The design of such a mission, as well as the immaturity of the technology involved and the inability to respond to unforeseen failures, make it highly unlikely that NASA will be able to extend the scientific lifetime of the telescope through robotic servicing,” said committee chairman Louis Lanzerotti, a solar-terrestrial research professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

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