Status Report

AIP FYI #96: Panel Calls For NASA Commitment to Hubble Servicing Mission

By SpaceRef Editor
July 20, 2004
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“NASA should take no actions that would preclude a space shuttle
servicing mission” to extend the life of the Hubble Space Telescope,
an independent panel told the space agency on July 13. This was one
of the interim recommendations of a National Research Council (NRC)
committee tasked with evaluating the feasibility, risks, and
comparative benefits of a servicing mission to extend and enhance
the scientific life of the telescope, either by space shuttle or by some
robotic or ground-based alternative. The committee urges NASA to
“commit to” some form of servicing mission to the Hubble, which it
calls “arguably the most important telescope in history.”
Additionally, it concludes that the findings of the Columbia
Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) do not preclude a possible servicing
mission by astronauts using the space shuttle.

The Hubble was launched in 1990, with a planned 15-year mission
life. It has been repaired or upgraded four times, and NASA’s current
plans call for it to be robotically de-orbited in 2013. After the
Columbia tragedy, the grounding of the space shuttle fleet, and the report by
the CAIB, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe decided for safety reasons
to cancel future shuttle servicing flights to the Hubble. The next
servicing mission, planned for 2006, would have replaced batteries
and gyroscopes and enhanced the Hubble’s scientific capabilities,
the committee’s report says, “by allowing qualitatively new observations
in two underexploited spectral regions.” Outcry over the
cancellation from scientists, Members of Congress, and the public,
and calls for an independent assessment of the situation, ultimately
led O’Keefe to ask for an NRC review of the options.

The NRC committee was charged with assessing the viability of a
human servicing mission; evaluating possible robotic and ground-based
servicing options; assessing the likelihood and impact of Hubble
component failures; and providing a risk-benefit assessment of
servicing options and whether any would be “worth the risks
involved.” The committee was also asked to consider “the practical
implications of the limited time available for meaningful
intervention.” Recognizing that the potential for age-related
instrument failure on the Hubble lends “some urgency” to the issue,
the NRC committee issued its interim findings and recommendations in
the form of a July 13 letter to O’Keefe from Committee Chairman
Louis Lanzerotti.

A significant portion of the letter describes the telescope’s
“extraordinary” contributions to science. The committee finds that,
with a servicing mission, the Hubble will continue to provide
“compelling scientific returns.” Therefore, it calls on NASA to
commit to a servicing mission that would accomplish the same
scientific instrument, battery and gyroscope replacements originally
planned for the cancelled shuttle mission.

Secondly, the committee finds that a robotic servicing mission would
involve a high level of “complexity, sophistication, and technology
maturity,” and notes that “there has been little time for NASA to
evaluate and understand the technical and schedule limitations of
robotic servicing.” It urges NASA to immediately “take an active
partnership role” in robotic space technology demonstration
activities of other federal agencies.

While acknowledging that “there is risk to the astronaut crew in any
human flight mission,” the committee “concludes that a shuttle
flight to the [Hubble] is not precluded by or inconsistent with the
recommendations” of the CAIB and other advisory groups. The
committee finds that “the key technical decision points for
committing to a specific service scenario are at least a year in the
future,” but believes that “there would be little additional
investment in time and resources required over the next year for
NASA to keep open an option” of a crewed shuttle servicing mission.
“Until the agency has completed a more comprehensive examination of
the engineering and technology issues” of robotic and human
servicing options, the report states, “NASA should take no actions that would
preclude a space shuttle servicing mission.”

The committee hopes that its interim report will “provide useful
guidance to NASA that can be utilized during the time that the
committee (as well as NASA) continues to investigate the servicing
options in greater detail.” It plans to finish drafting its final
report by the end of summer or early fall. The committee’s interim
letter to O’Keefe can be viewed in pdf format at

Several Members of the House Science Committee issued statements
commending the committee for its work so far. The Ranking Minority
Member, Bart Gordon (D-TN), praised the committee for its “clear and
timely guidance to NASA and Congress,” and Chairman Sherwood
Boehlert (R-NY) declared, “I wholeheartedly endorse its recommendations.”

In his response to the letter, O’Keefe called the space telescope “a
national treasure” and pledged to “keep options open to assure the
best possible outcome.” He noted that “the challenges of a robotic
mission are under examination and we’ll continue our exhaustive and
aggressive efforts to assess innovative servicing options.” While
promising that “we’re committed to doing everything possible to
safely extend the scientific life of this valuable asset,” he made
no explicit reference to the committee’s findings regarding a possible
shuttle mission.

Audrey T. Leath

Media and Government Relations Division

The American Institute of Physics

(301) 209-3094

SpaceRef staff editor.