Saving Hubble
Putting privatization to the test.


The outraged screams would put Howard Dean to shame: How dare the administration cancel the maintenance-shuttle flight that would give the Hubble Space Telescope a few more years in orbit?

Those anguished cries come from varied entities–space enthusiasts, scientists, people who are against anything the administration favors, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.), whose state houses the center that handles images from the space telescope.

It is true that, all else being equal, it would be great to keep Hubble around. But all else is very distinctly not equal. The space telescope, for all the wonderful images it has produced, has managed to get caught in misfortune almost from the beginning. Scheduled to have been launched in 1986, it remained on the ground–as did the space shuttle that was to carry it to orbit–for years following the Challenger disaster. It got launched in 1990 only to have it discovered–though there were people on the ground who predicted it ahead of time–that its main light-gathering mirror had been improperly ground, requiring another shuttle flight to install a “contact lens” that would allow its images to be in focus. Now, again, it is a victim of circumstance, this time the recognition that the shuttle really isn’t safe to fly. As part of his plan to bring the space program itself into focus, President Bush has decided that future flights of the aging and scarcely reliable shuttle will be limited to those to which we are contractually obligated: Missions devoted to completion of the International Space Station (which, but for the international agreements connected with it, would probably itself be abandoned for the low-orbit white elephant that there is general agreement it is). This means cancellation of a shuttle flight that had been planned to maintain Hubble and install some additional instrumentation.

Thus the outrage, manifested most recently in newspaper editorials and in a “leaked,” anonymous two-part report from a pro-Hubble technician in the space program.

The report, covered in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and elsewhere, claims that a flight to Hubble is no more dangerous than a flight to the International Space Station. That is not true. A shuttle headed for the ISS, broken at launch but capable of achieving orbit, would be at the correct angle (orbital inclination) to use the ISS as a lifeboat until repairs were effected or, in an extreme case, a ride home in a Soyuz capsule could be arranged. Not so with a Hubble flight, because Hubble is at a much lower inclination. Therefore, use of the ISS as an emergency base would not be possible–it would require far more fuel than could be carried aboard the shuttle. Vehicles in orbit cannot zoom around any old place the pilot cares to go. And Hubble is of no use to a crippled shuttle.

The anonymous report also points out that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended installation of equipment on the remaining shuttles which would allow in-flight repairs of the outside of the shuttle. What it leaves out is that NASA has no plan to install such equipment–nor would it need to do so for flights to the ISS. That equipment, which would takes months and many millions of dollars to design, build, and test, would be necessary only if non-ISS flights were planned.

Safety issues aside, shuttle flights cost about a half-billion dollars apiece. But perhaps there is a way of addressing at least the financial aspects of the question and keeping everybody happy while at the same time taking measure of the robustness of private and international support for the telescope.

It would be a relatively simple thing to establish a foundation the purpose of which is ownership and maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope. It could be–why not? It’s not as if Hubble is producing science of strategic importance, and the European Space Agency has been involved in Hubble anyway–an international foundation. The U.S. government could sign over the pink slip on Hubble to the foundation, which would then set about the task of raising money to keep it aloft. How? Donations certainly would figure in: a few bucks from private individuals, perhaps some corporate money. While the majority of the telescope’s images could continue to be freely available to everyone, there could be user fees charged to those for whom particular pictures are taken, as, say, part of a research project. Grants have been written for far-less-worthy projects.

The money raised could then pay for–or help pay for–the scheduled maintenance flight. Though the vexing shuttle-safety issues remain and are not going to go away, the administration would be likely to look favorably on pleas that Hubble be kept alive if those entreaties came wrapped in a check that prevented such a mission draining NASA’s budget. (Even then, a second shuttle would need to be ready for launch or nearly so, for rescue purposes should a Hubble flight get into trouble.)

Hubble’s glorious, lava-lamp pictures of nebulae and other dim and distant objects and events have increased scientific knowledge considerably over the last decade, indeed as recently as this week. But it is worth remembering that a permanent presence on the moon will provide a far better platform for a space telescope, and it is likely a telescope will be put there. It is worth remembering, too, that before the president’s announcement of a new space program Hubble was scheduled for retirement early next decade. The maintenance mission would buy only a few more years of service. Waiting for a moon telescope would postpone some research for a decade or so, not close the door on it forever.

No one argues that Hubble is unworthy, but there are many worthy projects that never come to pass or that cannot be continued for lack of money. Many people argue for privatization of the space program, while the skeptics say that raising money to sustain a private space program is impossible, so long-term would the investment need to be, so great the period between investment and payoff. A system such as the one described above, to save a working instrument of unquestioned value, would go far in determining which side of that argument is correct. For those who believe that the reasons for maintaining Hubble are compelling, the answer lies less in writing anonymous reports and holding congressional hearings than in coming up with the money to help make it happen.

Dennis E. Powell is a writer specializing in technopolitical issues. He is at work on Orbital Mechanics: The Space Shuttle and the People Who Made It Fly.