updated 3/12/2004 3:56:11 PM ET 2004-03-12T20:56:11

Senators demanded a second opinion Thursday on NASA’s plans to let the Hubble Space Telescope die, but space agency administrator Sean O’Keefe said new safety rules make it unlikely that a Hubble repair mission will be launched.

Sens. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., and Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., asked O’Keefe at a hearing to seek the advice of the National Academy of Sciences before abandoning any plans to send a repair mission to the ailing Hubble.

O’Keefe agreed to talk to officials at the academy, but later told reporters that safety rules approved by both Congress and NASA after the space shuttle Columbia accident make it virtually impossible to mount a space shuttle mission to repair the orbiting telescope.

“We’re not likely to be able to do that,” O’Keefe said after his testimony before the Senate appropriations subcommittee on VA-HUD-Independent Agencies, the panel that provides oversight for NASA.

NASA commits to safety
O’Keefe said that Congress and NASA have committed to following the safety guidelines laid down by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the panel that investigated the 2003 Columbia accident that killed seven astronauts and forced the shuttle fleet to be grounded. The accident was blamed on thermal protection panels that were shattered by debris during launch. Columbia came apart while returning to Earth.

Under the new guidelines, O’Keefe said, every inch of the outside of a space shuttle must be visually inspected after it is launch. Also, the spacecraft must carry with it or have available thermal tiles or wing panels to replace any parts broken during the launch. Additionally, the astronauts must be able to conduct spacewalks to repair any major damage.

All of these jobs can be accomplished if the space shuttle goes to the International Space Station, which is in a high-inclination orbit. But those requirements are less likely to be met on a mission to the near-equatorial orbit of the Hubble.

O’Keefe said a single failure of the inspection process would put a Hubble mission in violation of the safety rules recommended by the CAIB. He said any mission that is not in full compliance would be “fundamentally irresponsible.”

He said that even if all the precautions fail and their spacecraft is damaged beyond repair, space shuttle astronauts would have a better chance of surviving a mission to the International Space Station than to Hubble. He said the astronauts could board the ISS and wait up to 90 days for rescue by another space shuttle.

If the repairs failed on a Hubble mission, said O’Keefe, the astronauts could survive only 14 days, at most, before requiring rescue.

Steps to save the Hubble
The Hubble was launched in 1990 and has helped revolutionize astronomy by photographing some of the most distant objects in the universe. The craft already has ailing gyroscopes and its batteries are degrading. Both were to be replaced during a repair mission.

At the hearing, Mikulski said she was “shocked and surprised” at O’Keefe’s announcement in January to abandon plans to repair the Hubble and that it was too drastic a step to take without further study.

The Hubble was designed to be serviced by the space shuttle and already has benefited from three repair missions. Without a fourth, the telescope will eventually go dark and one day fall out of orbit.

“Canceling the final servicing mission for Hubble is major surgery. Any prudent person would get a second opinion,” Mikulski said.

Mikulski represents Maryland, home of the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Space Telescope Science Institute, which control the orbiting space telescope.

In a letter to Mikulski, Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., chairman of the Columbia investigation board, said that a Hubble repair mission would be “slightly more risky” for the space shuttle than a mission to the space station.

“I suggest only a deep and rich study of the entire gain/risk equation can answer the question of whether an extension of the life of the wonderful Hubble telescope is worth the risks involved,” Gehman said in the letter.

Mikulski and Bond asked for the National Academy of Sciences review of the NASA decision and O’Keefe agreed, but insisted that the study be expanded to include all Hubble options. The National Academy is an independent, non-government organization of the nation’s top scientists and engineers.

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