Image: Safe haven at work
Alejandro Reyes
An artist's conception shows the emergency safe-haven module docked to one shuttle, while a rescue shuttle approaches for docking. The Hubble Space Telescope can be seen in the background.
By NBC News space analyst
Special to NBC News
updated 12/7/2004 6:59:41 PM ET 2004-12-07T23:59:41

An “out-of-the-box” plan to put a new space habitat in orbit could be a leading contender for saving the Hubble Space Telescope, private-sector analysts say in a proposal being prepared for NASA. The habitat could be used as an emergency safe haven during the Hubble servicing mission, and then could serve as a base for wider commercial and exploratory space travel.

The full proposal is being handed over to the space agency this week, sources told MSNBC.com on condition of anonymity. Independently, the National Academy of Sciences is due on Wednesday to release its own recommendations for repairing Hubble.

NASA says a robotic repair mission is being developed at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., but it is "not yet committed fully" to the robotic option. The space agency chartered the National Academy of Sciences as well as the Aerospace Corp. — a private consulting and research company based in El Segundo, Calif. — to analyze the wide range of options for repairing and eventually disposing of the Hubble.

In its study, the Aerospace Corp. developed a proposal aimed at keeping astronauts involved in the mission while addressing the space agency's post-Columbia concerns about safety, by adding the provision for the safe-haven module.

Too dangerous for astronauts?
In the 14 years since Hubble's launch, astronauts have paid four visits to repair and upgrade the telescope, and had been gearing up for a fifth and final servicing mission. But in the wake of the Columbia shuttle disaster in February 2003, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe decided that sending the shuttle to Hubble without a backup plan would be too dangerous.

What went wrongInvestigators determined that the shuttle Columbia broke apart due to damage sustained just after launch. The damage that went undetected during the flight, and could not have been fixed even if it were found. Responding to the investigators' recommendations, NASA declared that all future shuttle missions would be limited to visits to the international space station. If an inspection at the station turned up signs of critical damage, the crew could hole up at the station and await rescue by another shuttle.

Because the Hubble Space Telescope has no such “safe haven” facilities and is in an orbit from which the space station can’t be reached, the crew would not have this option. Damage like that which doomed Columbia would leave the crew marooned in space. That's why O'Keefe ruled out a shuttle visit to Hubble and turned to the robotic option.

Looking at alternatives
NASA chartered the Aerospace Corp. study — called the “Hubble Space Telescope Servicing – Analysis of Alternatives,” or “AoA” for short — to look all the conceivable options for dealing with the aging Hubble. The alternatives range from no repair mission at all, to efforts aimed only at deorbiting the 12.5-ton telescope safely, to the entire spectrum of repair by robots. The study also evaluates re-hosting new instruments intended for Hubble on other satellites, and laid out wide-ranging options for shuttle visits.

As detailed by MSNBC.com on Monday, the study raises concerns about the robotic missions, saying that they would be too challenging, given the view that the telescope's systems could start failing within three or four years. It claims that the missions would cost too much ($2 billion or more), take too long, and still have less than half a chance of working even after all the time and money (and delays of follow-on programs) had been expended.

In response to those claims, NASA officials have said their current plan was exempt from these objections because they were not starting from scratch, but instead were working with already-existing hardware elements.

The Aerospace Corp. study doesn't confine itself to criticizing NASA's robotic plan, however. It suggest that the shuttle repair option could be restarted with one modification: To accommodate the safety concerns caused by lack of a “safe haven” at the telescope, a special supply module should be launched into space near the telescope “just in case.”

Compared with the robotic missions they studied, the new supply module and the shuttle mission could be launched years sooner, with a much higher likelihood of success, and at a cost competitive with robots, the study says. Such a plan could meet the higher safety standards specified by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, analysts said.

A member of the investigative board who requested that his name not be used enthusiastically endorsed the idea in an e-mail exchange with MSNBC.com.

“This is exciting news to me, for I hadn't yet heard of this option,” he wrote. “In my opinion, it represents an ideal example of out-of-the-box thinking that's needed for such challenges. ... I suspect there'll be a large throng that applauds this ... especially astronomers distraught that Hubble was being removed from the shuttle agenda.”

Building the space haven
As a space haven, the Aerospace Corp. proposes to use a carbon copy of the space station's first Russian-built module, known as the FGB. The FGB-1 was launched into orbit in November 1998 and is now known as the Zarya cargo module. A backup flightworthy spare, FGB-2, is still in storage. For years, the Russians have tried to market it as a commercial module for the space station, and their current plan is to use it as a future space research lab.

But the Aerospace Corp. study suggests that the FGB-2 could be shipped from Russia for blastoff from a more southerly launch site — perhaps Cape Canaveral in Florida or the European space base in Kourou, French Guyana.

Once in space, small thrusters could keep the module in a trailing orbit, a few hundred miles behind Hubble. At that range, the shuttle could fly between the Hubble and the space module in about a day, with minimal fuel cost.

In this scenario, the shuttle would head for the Hubble as originally planned, inspecting its heat-shielding tiles and panels on the way. If fatal damage is discovered, it would dock with the safe haven instead, and the crew would use the supplies on board to wait out the time it would take to launch a rescue shuttle.

If the shuttle mission proceeds smoothly, the safe haven would be left in orbit.

Open-ended opportunity
The open-ended scenario has sparked speculation about further opportunities for orbital space travel. Even if the FGB-2 turns out to be unavailable, some observers say it might be profitable to build the space haven from scratch, then use it for other purposes if NASA doesn't need it.

In fact, one rumor claimed that Robert Bigelow, the Las Vegas hotel magnate who is developing plans for orbital tourism , would build the haven for free, with the caveat that it would revert to his ownership if not needed. Michael Gold, corporate counsel for Bigelow Aerospace in Washington, told MSNBC.com this was untrue.

“At this time, the company is not interested in pursuing this course of action,” he said in a telephone interview.

European and Russian space concerns are among other parties who might make use of an extra orbital module. France and Russia already have made a deal to build a Soyuz launch pad at Kourou, where the European launch consortium Arianespace puts satellites into orbit. Although the deal does not currently extend to human spaceflight, this remains a possibility, Philippe Berterottière, a senior vice president at Arianespace, recently told a White House space commission.

Commercial space companies could conceivably turn such a module into a destination for high-paying, high-flying orbital tourists.

Looking farther down the road, even NASA could use the module as an "construction shack" for teams of workers assembling spacecraft for journeys beyond Earth orbit. The Hubble's orbit is far better than the international space station's more sharply inclined orbit to serve as such a staging area.

So for now, the shuttle-plus-haven option remains a "dark horse" in the race to save the Hubble. But if Hubble taught anything, it is that looking farther out is always amazingly valuable. If space officials raise their eyes from the immediate goal of fixing Hubble, then this "out-of-the-box" proposal could well merit a second look.

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