December 9, 2004 in Nation/World

Humans should fix Hubble, panel says

Marcia Dunn Asssociated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA should use astronauts, not a robot, to carry out a crucial life-prolonging mission to the acclaimed Hubble Space Telescope one last time, a National Academy of Sciences panel concluded Wednesday.

Using a robot would be highly uncertain and could take too long, the committee of scientists, engineers and astronauts said. But NASA’s chief has vowed he will not risk astronauts just to keep the 14-year-old telescope beaming back breathtaking snapshots of the cosmos for five more years.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has repeatedly contended that a Hubble mission would be riskier to the astronauts than a shuttle flight to the international space station. However, the National Academy of Sciences committee concluded that the difference in risk between the two missions is “very small.”

“Given the intrinsic value of a serviced Hubble, and the high likelihood of success … the committee judges that such a mission is worth the risk,” said the panel’s 135-page, congressionally requested report.

George Washington University’s John Logsdon, a member of the board that investigated last year’s Columbia accident that killed seven astronauts, said “there is a pretty clear-cut answer” to all of this – based on the academy’s findings and an Aerospace Corp. study due out any day that also dismisses a robotic mission.

The answer, Logsdon said, is to immediately cancel the robot plan, proceed toward a shuttle mission while continuing to assess its safety, and wait as long as possible before deciding whether to launch astronauts a fifth and final time to the Hubble.

The Aerospace Corp. has estimated a robotic effort could cost $2 billion, about the same as the cost of sending astronauts, and would have only a 50-50 chance of success. NASA had no immediate comment on the findings.

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