- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2004

Having spent more than a decade piercing the primordial darkness, the eyes of the Hubble Space Telescope will stay lit for many more years, thanks to NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe’s recent decision to attempt to save the craft through a robotic servicing mission.

Mr. O’Keefe’s decision is a welcome one, all the more so because high-profile public servants so rarely reverse controversial decisions so publicly. In January, Mr. O’Keefe provoked great criticism by declaring that, due to safety concerns, NASA would send no more manned servicing missions to the telescope. That decision appeared to doom the observatory to blindness in 2007, when its batteries are expected to wear out. NASA expected to send a robotic craft to the Hubble, but only to guide it into the sea.

Instead, earlier this week, Mr. O’Keefe announced, “Let’s go save the Hubble.” Rather than simply saving the observatory, the robotic mission is likely to fully service it: changing its run-down gyroscopes and batteries; adding new equipment; and possibly replacing a spectrograph that recently ceased functioning.

The technical challenges are great, but not insurmountable, and the expertise acquired is likely to be useful in the long-term — robotic missions are expected to play a significant part in the fulfillment of the president’s space vision. The most promising craft for the mission is a two-armed Canadian-built machine called Dextre. Engineers hope that the robotic mission will allow Hubble to make observations through 2012, by which point the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s planned successor, will be fully operational.

Scientists will use those years to add to Hubble’s already amazing series of discoveries. Among others, observations made by the telescope have confirmed the existence of black holes, shown that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate and answered many questions about the birth and death of stars.

The fiscal challenges for the servicing mission are likely to be at least as taxing as the technical ones. A robotic servicing mission is likely to be even more expensive than a shuttle servicing mission, estimated to cost between $1 billion and $1.6 billion. If those funds are not to be borrowed from other NASA accounts or taken from the new projects being established under the president’s space vision — and they should not be — then Congress will have to allocate those additional funds.

It should be an easy decision. NASA built Hubble — and Congress funded it — for the same reasons that Edwin Hubble, the telescope’s namesake, peered into the night in the early 20th century to understand the universe and perhaps even himself. Mr. O’Keefe has seen rightly and acted wisely in deciding that the Hubble should follow the stars for an additional half-decade.

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