Backing a Bad Hubble Decision


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NASA officials have claimed they performed a risk analysis before deciding to cancel the last space-shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, but no such analysis was ever done.

Worse, sources told UPI’s Space Watch that NASA also has ignored at least one proposal to reduce the risk of sending a shuttle crew to Hubble – in order to justify its decision.

Over the past few weeks, several NASA officials have stated publicly the agency’s decision to cancel further servicing to Hubble was made on safety issues alone, not cost.

At a budget briefing Feb. 7, Bill Readdy, associate administrator for space operations, explained how cost was not a factor in the decision to cancel the shuttle servicing mission, which was made public by former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe on Jan. 16, 2004.

“I don’t really think from a space operations standpoint … or in the mind of the administrator it was a matter of cost,” Readdy said.

Fred Gregory, the acting NASA administrator, emphasized this position in testimony before the House Science Committee on Feb. 17.

“Cost was not an issue as we evaluated whether (the shuttle) could go to the Hubble,” he said.

Instead, these and other NASA officials claimed the decision to cancel the last shuttle servicing mission to Hubble was made after careful analysis of the risks involved.

As Gregory told Congress, “Administrator O’Keefe made a very conscious, deliberate and well-informed decision that the shuttle would not service the Hubble.”

When asked by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the science committee, and Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., for a copy of that risk analysis report, Gregory agreed to provide it.

Yet, one day later, NASA historian Steve n Dick gave a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, in which he described the process by which that decision was made and revealed that, in fact, no formal risk analysis had been completed.

Dick had interviewed all of the NASA officials who had been involved in the decision to cancel the shuttle mission to the Hubble, a discussion that came to a head in December 2003 when those officials had been working on NASA’s fiscal year 2005 budget.

According to Dick’s interviews, risk was the major factor in the discussion, but the officials decided a formal risk analysis was unnecessary. Instead, Dick noted, “The decision was made (by O’Keefe) based on what he perceived was the risk.”

In other words, O’Keefe canceled the Hubble mission solely on his gut feeling of the situation. So, the only way NASA can provide the House Science Committee’s requested copy of that risk analysis from December 2003 is to recreate it after the fact.

As of Thursday there was no word on whether NASA submitted the requested document.

The lack of formal analysis was compounded further by NASA’s refusal at the time to consider a variety of options for reducing the risk of a shuttle servicing mission.

For example, according to an aerospace industry source, who wished to remain anonymous, one company actually proposed using an updated version of the module that was built in the 1990s to allow the shuttle to dock with Russian Mir space station. The revised module would allow two shuttles to link up so the crews could be transferred from one spacecraft to the other in a shirt-sleeve environment, eliminating the need for spacesuits or spacewalks.

NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md., which has had the job of servicing Hubble since its launch, received this proposal in March 2003. Furthermore, NASA headquarters was aware of the proposal in December 2003 when the discussions on Hubble’s future reached a climax.

Yet, NASA apparently never considered the idea seriously, even though engineers had completed the preliminary design work and construction of a revised docking module would have been far simpler and cheaper than trying to send robots to Hubble.

Instead, NASA officials repeatedly have acted as though no such option existed, often describing how a shuttle mission to the telescope was too risky – partly because any rescue would require a dangerous spacewalk.

For example, when O’Keefe testified before the National Academy of Sciences in June 2004, he made no mention of this docking module option, telling academy panel members that the only method available for crew rescue was a spacewalk transferring “people while both orbiters are flying in relatively close formation, across a tether capacity.”

Nor has NASA ever apparently considered the idea of using one of the several available supply modules to supplement the provisions of an orbiting shuttle. Once placed in an orbit close to Hubble, such a module could be used as a supply depot for a damaged shuttle – a form of safe haven – thereby extending its time in orbit and allowing time to launch a rescue mission.

Two such supply modules, the European Space Agency’s Automatic Transfer Vehicle and the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle, already are under development for docking automatically with the International Space Station. The ATV – the first of which is scheduled for launch this coming fall – is five times larger than a Russian Progress freighter. Likewise, the Japanese HTV will carry 6 to 7 tons, and is scheduled for launch in 2007. Both could be easily modified to allow a shuttle docking.

It does not appear that anyone in NASA’s leadership ever considered such options. Instead, O’Keefe and others have noted repeatedly the only way to provide a shuttle crew a sufficient safe haven while the agency mounted a rescue mission would be to have it dock with the International Space Station.

As O’Keefe told the academy panel last June, “A stand alone mission … is limited to certainly not more than 17 to 20 days.”

That same leadership then spent a year – led by O’Keefe – pursuing the far more difficult, risky and expensive robot-mission concept, something NASA now admits was unaffordable, unrealistic and unachievable.

In the end, the agency’s arguments for abandoning Hubble were best described by Rep. Ehlers during the Feb. 17 hearings.

“What I see before me now appears (as) simply trying to justify a decision (that was) made in haste and was not proper or appropriate,” he said.

For NASA and the American space program, this increasingly untenable position is beginning to have a serious political cost. By refusing to reconsider their decision and reinstate the shuttle servicing mission to Hubble, NASA is undercutting its ability to persuade Congress to give it money to build spacecraft to fly humans back to the moon.

As Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., noted during those same science committee hearings, “If we’re unwilling to take the risks to go to Hubble, then what does that say about (our willingness to mount) a moon and eventual Mars mission?”

Or as Boehlert remarked, “In a budget as excruciatingly tight as this one, NASA probably should not get as much as the president has proposed.”

Unless President George W. Bush appoints a new NASA administrator with the courage to reverse the Hubble decision, he is going to find it increasingly difficult to persuade Congress – or anyone else, for that matter – that NASA has the wherewithal to handle his ambitious space initiative.

Robert Zimmerman is an independent space historian and the author of “The Chronological Encyclopedia of Discoveries in Space.” His most recent book, “Leaving Earth,” was awarded the Eugene M. Emme Award by the American Astronautical Society for the best popular space history in 2003.

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