Wednesday, February 11, 2004

On Jan. 16, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe announced his decision to cancel all future space shuttle missions to the Hubble Space Telescope, including SM4, the nearly ready-to-go flight that would have installed the new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and Wide Field Camera 3 instruments. This decision came atop an overall policy shift by the Bush administration to phase out the Shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) commitments by 2010, thereby clearing the way to redeploy their budgets toward supporting human exploration of the moon and Mars. While the redirection of NASA’s human spaceflight program from Earth orbital activities toward planetary exploration was a valuable step, canceling the Hubble upgrade mission was a huge mistake.

The Hubble Space Telescope has been the most scientifically productive spacecraft in history. Through Hubble, we have observed directlytheplanetary cometary impacts that drive the evolution of life, witnessed the birth of stars that make all life possible and measured the size and age of the universe itself. The astronaut missions that have made this possible stand as epic achievements in the chronicles of humanity’s search for truth. How can the decision to abort such a program be justified?

Certainly not on the basis of cost. Given the commitment to continue flying the shuttle program through 2010, adding the two shuttle flights required to upgrade Hubble and then reboost it to make it operational through 2015 would only add about $200 million to the shuttle program’s $24 billion cost, while increasing its science return by several orders of magnitude.

Safety arguments won’t wash either. It is true that when flying to the ISS, the crew has a safe-haven on orbit, which is not available to Hubble flights. However, Hubble missions leave the Cape flying east-southeast, while launches to ISS go northeast. Thus, in the event of a launch abort, Hubble missions can ditch in warm tropical waters, while ISS flights must come down in the frigid North Atlantic, where the crew’s chances for survival would be much less.

Furthermore, because ISS flights take off with much heavier payloads than Hubble flights, they require full functionality of all three engines for nearly 100 seconds longer than Hubble missions if they are to perform an abort-to-orbit. This makes landing in the drink on ISS missions considerably more likely. In addition, NASA calculations show that the danger of fatal impacts by micrometeors and orbital debris (MMOD) to be over 60 percent greater on ISS missions than Hubble missions. For example, on STS 113, the last shuttle station flight, the calculated probability of loss of vehicle and crew by MMOD was 1/250. In contrast, the last Hubble servicing mission (STS-109) had a much lower calculated MMOD probability of 1/414. If we put this information together with the fact that only two shuttle missions are needed to make Hubble operational for another decade, while more than 20 are needed to complete the ISS, it is apparent that Mr. O’Keefe’s assessment that the Hubbleprogramposes greater risk than the ISS program is nonsense.

The decision to flee the Hubble program will cause harm far beyond the damage it does to astronomy. In fact, it completely undermines thepresident’scallfor human planetary exploration. Unless we are willing to accept risks equal to, and in fact significantly greater than, those required to upgrade the space telescope, human explorers are not going to the moon, Mars, or anywhere else. And if we are not going to engage in humaninterplanetary travel, then the primary rationale for the Space Station program — learning about the effects of long-duration spaceflight on human physiology — falls apart as well.

The point is not that we should be blase about risk. The point is that there are certain things that require accepting risk to achieve and are worth the price that such a course will entail. The search for truth, carried forward by necessarily perilous human activities in space — whether at Hubble or on Mars — is one of them.

In the face of massive public outrage about his decision, Mr. O’Keefe has agreed to allow it to be reviewed by Columbia Accident Investigation Board ChairmanAdm.Hal Gehman. Hopefully, Mr. Gehman will rectify the situation. But if he does not, then Congress will have to act. Lawmakers will have to take action, because ultimately the question of whether we do what it takes to keep our eyes open upon the heavens is not one of the technicalities of shuttle flight safety, but of societal values.

The desertion of Hubble is an offense against science and civilization. It represents a departure from the pioneer spirit, and its ratification as policy would preclude any possibility of a human future in space. It is an inexcusable decision, and it needs to be reversed.

Robert Zubrin is president of the Mars Society and author of the books “The Case for Mars,” “Entering Space” and “Mars on Earth.”

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