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Senator rushes to Hubble's defense

From The Hubble Space Telescope’s staunchest congressional protector is urging NASA to reconsider its decision to curtail any further servicing of the observatory.
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The Hubble Space Telescope’s staunchest congressional protector is urging NASA to reconsider its decision to curtail any further servicing of the 14-year-old observatory.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said she was "shocked and surprised" by NASA’s decision, announced Jan. 16, to terminate what would have been the fifth and final Hubble servicing mission.

In a letter to NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, Mikulski, the ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA’s budget, askeds the space agency chief to reconsider his decision. Mikulski also asked O’Keefe to appoint an independent panel of outside experts to assess all the ins and outs of conducting another space shuttle mission to Hubble.

She also is calling on NASA to continue all preparations for the servicing mission until Congress has a chance to weigh in.

"Hubble has become the most successful NASA program since Apollo," Mikulski wrote in the letter, dated Wednesday. "It cannot be terminated prematurely with the stroke of a pen without a thorough and rigorous review while planning, preparation and training activities continue."

Home-state concerns
Maryland is home to two major Hubble facilities, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. Mikulski is the most senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations VA-HUD and independent agencies subcommittee, which must approve NASA’s budget each year.

Until recently, NASA had planned to visit Hubble one last time — possibly as soon as 2006 — to change out instruments and replace its batteries and gyroscopes with the intent of keeping the telescope in service until its heir apparent, the James Webb Space Telescope, is up and operating. That telescope, now in development, is scheduled to be launched around 2011.

NASA Chief Scientist John Grunsfeld, one of the last astronauts to visit Hubble, said conducting the Hubble servicing mission without violating the safety mandates issued in the wake of the 2003 Columbia accident would have required the development of potentially costly on-orbit shuttle inspection and repair techniques not otherwise needed. Because a shuttle visiting the Hubble could not reach the international space station in the event of a spacecraft emergency, Grunsfeld said NASA would have needed a second shuttle on the launch pad and ready to go in case a rescue was required.

Tiger team established
Although a shuttle mission appears to be out of the question in light of NASA’s plans to retire the fleet by 2010, the Hubble community is not taking the decision to scrap the servicing mission lying down.

Steve Beckwith, the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, said a tiger team has been established to investigate essentially any and all ideas for prolonging Hubble’s life in light of NASA’s decision.

"We’re in the mode of pursuing every wacky concept out there," Beckwith said.