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Scientists cheer renewed hope for Hubble

Scientists cheered word that NASA may reconsider its decision to cancel servicing missions to the space telescope.
This picture of the Hubble Space Telescope was snapped from the shuttle Discovery during a 1997 servicing mission. NASA has decided to discontinue such servicing missions due to safety concerns.
This picture of the Hubble Space Telescope was snapped from the shuttle Discovery during a 1997 servicing mission. NASA has decided to discontinue such servicing missions due to safety concerns.NASA via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sen. Barbara Mikulski told scientists Friday that she refused to take “no” for an answer when NASA’s chief decided not to service the Hubble Space Telescope. But she cautioned that telescope’s future is not assured.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe at first denied her request to reconsider, she told scientists and staff at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which coordinates the use of the instruments aboard Hubble.

“Well, I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” said the feisty Maryland senator, the ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA’s budget.

O’Keefe relented and sent Mikulski a letter on Thursday saying that Adm. Hal Gehman, chairman of the board that investigated the Columbia shuttle breakup last year, will “review the (Hubble) matter and offer his unique perspective.”

Mikulski, however, told the cheering scientists that she did not want to raise false hopes and would accept whatever recommendation Gehman gives on the safety of a Hubble servicing mission.

Weighing the risks
Scientists say the orbiting Hubble telescope has revolutionized the study of astronomy with its striking images of the universe. O’Keefe, however, had canceled a scheduled shuttle repair mission, citing the risk to the astronauts and President Bush’s new focus for the space agency, including missions to the moon, Mars and beyond.

In the wake of the Columbia tragedy, the risks associated with shuttle missions to Hubble have been rated significantly higher than they were before Columbia — due to the space telescope's orbit and the inability of the shuttle to use the international space station as a “safe haven” in case it couldn't land.

Without the service mission, which had been planned for 2006, scientists believe the orbiting telescope could stop working several years before its scheduled 2010 retirement.

O’Keefe’s decision prompted letters from Mikulski and a joint letter from all members of Congress from Maryland, from where the orbiting platform is operated.

“The scientific returns we have received from Hubble’s service thus far have exceeded our expectations. ... We believe that NASA should make every possible effort to retain this proven window on the universe,” the letter said.

E-mails pouring in
Hubble’s fate has also become a cause for amateur and professional astronomers worldwide, and e-mails have poured in to the Space Telescope Science Institute.

“It’s been overwhelming. My e-mail is overflowing,” said the institute's director, Steve Beckwith.

“Every day, we’ve had offers of ideas, political support and even money,” he said. “Every day, I get people who want to know how they can contribute to keeping Hubble alive.”

NASA spokesman Robert Mirelson said Thursday that O’Keefe has not changed his decision but asked Gehman to give “his view on basically all the questions on the table,” including safety, scheduling and the recommendations of the Columbia board.

Mikulski also said she supports the choice of Gehman for the review.

“He will know whether this is a smoke screen to get rid of Hubble for a lot of other reasons,” she said.

Mikulski said Congress can appropriate money for the space telescope, but the safety aspects of the decision is in the hands of NASA. The telescope, however, is popular for more than merely scientific reasons, she said.

“Why do people want to save the Hubble? It’s because of the story the Hubble tells,” Mikulski told the packed auditorium. “It’s about discovery ... This country exists because of discovery.”