TOPICS > Science

Mission’s End?

March 30, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Our Hubble report is from our science unit; Tom Bearden is the correspondent.

TOM BEARDEN: The light that made this image began its journey toward the Earth 13 billion years ago. It’s called the ultra deep field, an extremely long time exposure of a tiny piece of the night sky taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. It was released on March 9th with much fanfare at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Steven Beckwith runs the institute.

STEVEN BECKWITH: When this image is fully studied by the astronomical community, we expect it to reveal new secrets to the origins of stars and galaxies and, ultimately, ourselves.

TOM BEARDEN: But just seven weeks earlier, Sean O’Keefe, who heads the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said NASA would not fly a scheduled servicing mission which would have kept Hubble functioning until 2010. Without the new batteries and gyroscopes the trip would provide, the telescope would become uncontrollable and useless. He said the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, abbreviated CAIB, convinced him to cancel the mission. That panel said the destruction of Columbia had proved that shuttles should not fly unless they have a safe haven to go to — like the International Space Station. NASA Associate Administrator Ed Weiler says if a shuttle had a problem while servicing Hubble, there would be no realistic way to rescue the astronauts.

EDWARD WEILER: You’d have to launch another shuttle and do a never-before- attempted rescue attempt. Two shuttles flying together in deep space with astronauts floating in-between them — we have never done that and there’s no way we can practice that. In the meantime, there’d be intense schedule pressure to get that second shuttle off. What happens if the weather’s bad or something doesn’t look quite right? Are we going to be forced into a situation where the administrator has to waive a requirement? That’s exactly what the CAIB report said we shouldn’t do ever again: Don’t waive safety requirements.

TOM BEARDEN: In its ten years of operation, Hubble won a following among the public with spectacular and sometimes startling images of the birth and death of galaxies. Many didn’t want to lose it.

STEVEN BECKWITH: I have a dialogue with a surfer from California who builds experimental aircraft and just couldn’t imagine that we’d get rid of Hubble. I have correspondence and e-mail from executives in life sciences companies. I’ve got, in fact, correspondence from single mothers whose children have been inspired by Hubble. It just spans the whole spectrum of our society, and I think that’s amazing.

TOM BEARDEN: Politicians like Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski were also outraged. She came to the ultra deep field announcement to complain about the decision.

SEN. BARBARA MIKULSKI: The future of the Hubble should not be made by one man in a NASA back room without a transparent process.

TOM BEARDEN: Mikulski asked O’Keefe for a second opinion, which he got from Admiral Harold Gehman, who headed the CAIB. He concluded that a mission to Hubble would only be slightly more dangerous than a mission to the space station, but his letter didn’t convince NASA to change its mind. In the meantime, scientists started publicly pointing out what would be lost if Hubble were abandoned.

MICHAEL SHULL: This is about 6 million light years of the universe across.

TOM BEARDEN: At the University of Colorado, astrophysicist Mike Shull had planned to use Hubble to study the structure of the matter that exists in the space between galaxies.

MICHAEL SHULL: The dense parts where these ropes or filaments of matter intersect is where the first stars and first galaxies formed.

TOM BEARDEN: Shull helped design the $70 million cosmic origins spectrograph to look at the so-called intergalactic medium. The device was supposed to have been installed on the next servicing mission. It’s sitting in a clean room in Boulder and, as long as it does, Shull and his students lose precious access to Hubble.

MICHAEL SHULL: We lost something like 550 orbits of Hubble time, a five or six-year program involving five or six faculty, 20 students, maybe ten post-doctoral researchers. So, that’s all on hold.

TOM BEARDEN: The university said it would lose $20 million from its budget if it loses the Hubble work.

TOM BEARDEN: You’re not suggesting that a potentially risky mission should be undertaken simply to save people’s jobs?

MICHAEL SHULL: No, this is not about jobs, and it’s not even about science. And in the end, the experts have to decide about the risk. We’re not saying that. And I’ve said in a very emotional talk once about when astronauts died just so people like me could do our science, that I didn’t understand why that would happen. And yet I was very happy when the parents of the astronauts said that the worst legacy of the Columbia tragedy would be that NASA stopped doing science or space exploration.

EDWARD WEILER: The astronomers are upset about this and I understand that. I’m an astronomer; that’s what my degree is in. I’ve worked on Hubble for 25 years. My boss is in a different situation, the administrator. He is the only human on Earth that has to look in the families of the astronauts’ faces — their kids, their spouses — the night before launch and say we have done everything to make this mission safe that your father or mother is flying on — only person on earth. There are no scientists standing with him. That is his responsibility. And what’s really scary is that if something goes wrong, he’s also the only person on Earth who has to explain that to those same families and kids.

TOM BEARDEN: Some Hubble supporters blame the cancellation of future servicing missions on President Bush’s new policy directing NASA to return to the Moon and begin planning manned flights to Mars. That new mission means that after completing the International Space Station, the shuttle will be retired and future manned efforts will be devoted to the moon and Mars. Colorado Democratic Congressman Mark Udall, whose district includes the university, has introduced a congressional resolution supporting Hubble.

TOM BEARDEN: Do you think that space science is being sacrificed for the Mars/moon missions?

REP. MARK UDALL: I don’t think it’s being sacrificed, but I think some of the space science mission has been reduced because you have to find the additional resources to do the moon and Mars mission. And if you look at the Bush administration’s budget proposals, they really are hollowing out some programs and then moving those resources over to the moon/Mars side.

TOM BEARDEN: Astrophysicist Web Cash says it’s not just Hubble that is losing out to the moon/Mars reallocation. Cash has been working with NASA for more than 30 years. He’s currently developing plans for a series of satellites that would use X-rays to record the first motion pictures of material being sucked into black holes.

WEBSTER CASH: Well, it’s definitely going to be delayed, with what’s happening now. We know at least a three-year delay, right now. There are plans, as I understand it, to restore funding in three years. But we also understand that, given the uncertainties in the current climate, that that may mean nothing, as well. We just don’t know where we stand.

TOM BEARDEN: But NASA’s Weiler says it’s inaccurate to say that the moon/Mars missions are siphoning money from science projects.

EDWARD WEILER: I just gave a speech at the National Academy where I talked about my budget. And despite the fact that most agencies in the government’s budget are either frozen or going down, I had to report that the space science budget is looking at an increase of 41 percent over the next five years. So the rumors of the death of space science, the raping of space science, are a bit premature, if not incorrect.

TOM BEARDEN: NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe recently agreed to an independent review of his decision, to be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences. But he’s already said it’s unlikely he’ll change his mind. Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher heads the House subcommittee that oversees NASA. He says Congress may have something to say about O’Keefe’s decision.

TOM BEARDEN: Do you think Congress will make him change that decision?

REP. DANA ROHRABACHER: Well, we spend the money. I mean, it’s — the people are relying on us to make sure the money is spent wisely, and letting a major asset like the Hubble telescope just sink into the burning flames of the atmosphere and then, you know, just crash and burn someplace on the planet doesn’t seem like a very good use of the money, as far as I’m concerned. So I have yet to be convinced that we should just let that project go.

TOM BEARDEN: Rohrabacher is usually ideologically far apart from Udall, but he supports the Colorado Democrat’s efforts to continue planning to service Hubble. Weiler doesn’t mind continuing to plan, but he says NASA is investigating a better idea. He believes the batteries and gyroscopes could be installed by remote control.

EDWARD WEILER: If we go the robotic route and make that decision as soon as possible, we take the safety and human risk thing off the table. And we can go aggressively. We can put our best engineers at NASA and industry working this aggressively and get it done by ’07. We can’t make that decision a year from now or two years from now.

TOM BEARDEN: The National Academy of Sciences’ review panel is still getting organized. NASA hopes it will complete its report by this summer.