TCS Daily

Hubble, Hubble, Worth the Trouble?

By Rand Simberg - February 9, 2005 12:00 AM

With the release of the administration's budget this week, it looks like it's finally the end of the road for the Hubble Space Telescope -- there's no request in it for funds to repair or reboost it. Its future had been uncertain since the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia a little over two years ago, but barring a massive fight in Congress it's likely that it will deorbit, in either a planned or unplanned manner, in the next few years, probably losing its ability to send us more spectacular pictures of the universe before that final event.

Hubble has had a distinguished life, after a rough childhood. It and NASA became the butt of late-night talk show jokes after it was first launched almost a decade and a half ago. Shortly after deployment, it was discovered that, like NASA's geeky kid, it needed glasses, its mirror having been ground precisely to the wrong specification.


But NASA launched a repair mission with the Shuttle, with a new prescription, and as they did for so many of us geeky kids, the new specs opened up a whole new world, except in this case, it opened up a whole new universe for viewers on planet Earth. Since those early growing pains, it has thrilled millions with images of dying stars, nurseries where new stars are being born, and growing galaxies, many of which adorn calendars, or act as screen savers. It's become one of the space agency's most beloved and popular programs, and for many it's become hard to remember a time when we didn't have such a spectacular astronomical capability.


But all good things must come to an end, and Hubble was never intended to last forever. Its life has already been extended with periodic upgrades, and the original plan was to shut it down this year, though a five-year extension (to 2010), was granted in late 1997.


Unfortunately, after Columbia was lost in early 2003, NASA was forced to rethink its entire program.


One of the reasons that the Columbia crew was lost was because its Spacelab mission was to a low-inclination orbit, unlike most recent and planned Shuttle flights, which go to the International Space Station (ISS). Had its destination been the latter, someone may have seen the tile damage from the station, and the crew might have been able to stay there until a rescue Shuttle could be sent up (though it's not clear whether or not there would have been adequate life support for ten people for the necessary amount of time). But many felt that at least they would have had a chance.


In the wake of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report on the tragedy, and the redirection of the nation's space policy last January to once again send humans beyond low earth orbit, NASA announced a year or so ago they now considered another mission to Hubble (in the same low inclination in which Columbia had been lost) to be too risky to justify the returns. They were unwilling to send another Shuttle alone into the wilderness that is low earth orbit. The CAIB didn't explicitly forbid such a mission, but NASA used the report as a justification for the decision.


Many questioned it. In fact, many simply disbelieved the stated reason, thinking it an excuse to shut the program down (perhaps for financial reasons). After all, it's a reasonable question to ask how an agency that has been tasked with sending humans back to the moon, and ultimately to Mars, can be so timorous, indeed querulous about simply flying a mission that has been flown many times before. And it seems strange to say that Hubble wasn't deemed worth risking astronauts' lives for (bearing in mind that we have a surplus of astronauts -- it's orbiters that are in short supply) when the astronauts have expressed willingness to perform the mission. Many believed at the time (and still do) that the decision was driven by the new decision to go back to the Moon and Mars, since it was announced shortly afterward. Though there really is no direct link between them, such a belief feeds into the old "robots vs. humans" argument, in which good unmanned science is supposedly being cut for expensive manned programs. In fact, the justification seems sufficiently inexplicable that one guy, in a spasm of continuing irrational Bush hatred, even came up with a nutty conspiracy theory that the administration didn't like Hubble because its revelations didn't support creationist views.


That aside, it's not the decision I would have made, at least at the time -- I think that Hubble is one of the few things worth the cost of a Shuttle flight, particularly compared to the ISS. And it was almost immediately clear that NASA had both underestimated the fondness of the American public for Hubble, and overestimated its fear of losing more astronauts and its love of the ISS (the only planned future destination for Space Shuttles), because it set off a firestorm (well, at least as much as any space policy decision does). But they should have anticipated it. It's quite likely that many more people have screensavers of the Eagle Nebula on their desktop than of the International Space Station.


So, after the PR disaster, NASA came up with a new plan. They still wouldn't risk astronauts, but they decided to issue some study contracts to send a robot to the rescue. Some cynics (like moi) thought this a fig leaf, and a means of buying time until they could come up with some other plan. Why?


For all the talk of how wonderful robots are for exploring space, relative to humans, they don't have a great track record as repairmen. In fact, most of our experience with orbital service calls, from Skylab and the Solar Max repair, to Westar and Palapa and Leasat, were highlighted by all the unanticipated things that went wrong, and were only salvaged by the dexterity and flexibility of humans in space suits. In each and every case, a robot alone would have failed (though it was exquisite teamwork between a robot -- the Canadarm -- and the on-site crew that saved Solar Max, and Westar and Palapa). In fact, the need for improvisation pointed out the futility of NASA's expensive philosophy of overplanning and training for such missions. It may be that in the future satellites and space platforms will be designed for automated robotic service techs, but Hubble was designed to be serviced by people, not by robots.


In fact, the difficulty of the task was reflected in the cost estimate, which ranged from one to two billion dollars, with a very high risk of failure, for reasons stated above. That's a price tag far higher than the Shuttle mission (which would be quite likely to be successful, given the history), even using NASA's self-serving accounting methods. In any event, this cynic's prediction was born out by the administration's decision this week to not fund Hubble repair at all, with funding available only to deorbit it in a controlled manner (to avoid a repetition of the demise of Skylab). International treaties oblige us to care about such things, though it's not clear whether or not even that money will ultimately be spent for that purpose, given the other pressing needs of the agency. Hubble is, after all, much smaller than Skylab, and Skylab didn't hurt anyone.


So is it the end of beautiful pictures from deep space?


Almost certainly not.


Since Hubble was launched, major advances have been made in ground-based astronomy -- multiple-mirror telescopes, actively controlled, are the latest thing, allowing arrays to approach Hubble's abilities, even through the atmosphere. And there are proposals, one of which just came out this week, to replace Hubble, using some of the instruments that were planned to be installed on it during the next repair mission. Such a project could probably be done for the same amount of money that it would cost to repair Hubble, and the replacement would contain all-new technology. So while there's nothing wrong with pangs of nostalgia for the little geeky telescope that grew up to show us the universe, spending money to save it at this point probably isn't the best way to continue the advance of such explorations. And despite the efforts of some (whose constituents, not coincidentally, benefit from the institute that receives and processes the data) it's probably time to let it go.


Perhaps, if Burt Rutan or someone else can get to orbit before the old bird dies and enters, it can still be resurrected, but until we get the cost of human access to orbit dramatically lower (something that, sadly, the new space policy doesn't even seem to attempt to do), like our old computers, it will continue to be more cost effective to replace such things than repair them. Fortunately, we should be able to afford to do that, and continue to generate new knowledge, and wondrous calendars and screen savers.


Rand Simberg is a consultant and entrepreneur in commercial space, space tourism, and internet security. He publishes a weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.


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