Fixing NASA’s Hubble: Its Time to Fish or Cut Bait

By Keith Cowing
August 10, 2004
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Fixing NASA’s Hubble: Its Time to Fish or Cut Bait

NASA’s new Associate Administrator for Science, Al Diaz, held a hastily arranged teleconference (45 minutes notice) with a dozen reporters today to discuss recent progress on developing a robotic mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. This teleconference was on the heels of a visit by Sean O’Keefe and Diaz to Goddard Space Flight Center yesterday wherein O’Keefe was briefed on progress with the robotic mission. At the end of the day O’Keefe addressed employees.

Hubble’s fate has been a lightning rod issue which has generated an immense amount of controversy in Congress. As such, given the amount of visibility the Hubble issue has, you would think that Diaz et al would have come better prepared to answer questions – and not schedule something at the last minute. Instead, obvious questions asked again and again by reporters went unanswered. To be fair, Diaz is new on the job at NASA HQ. However he has been center director at GSFC for a number of years.

Al Diaz was unwilling to speak to a cost for this robotic mission despite multiple questions to that effect by reporters. Again, to be fair, the process of figuring out what will be done on this mission is still some time off, and it is rather unreasonable for the media to expect NASA to come up with a crisp number. However, such things usually fall within a general range which you’d expect NASA to at least reference – especially given the attention being given to NASA’s budget these days.

None the less, Al Diaz refused to comment on any cost range even though it was mentioned that presentations made by NASA to the National Academy of Sciences had cost ranges up to a billion dollars – and the fact that today’s Orlando Sentinel quotes Sean O’Keefe in an interview yesterday as suggesting a range of “$1 – 1.6 billion”. Diaz instead was steadfast in not wanting to be pinned down on a number – or even a range.

Since NASA is keeping its options open with regard to a possible shuttle mission to Hubble, Diaz was asked about what activities were still ongoing to keep the options open – and what this might be costing. Diaz said that he was not aware of any tasks under way – but that people were still thinking about options. This was confusing. This comment was made several times. Regardless of whether people are doing one thing or another – or sitting at their desks thinking about something, they are still being paid to do something.

When asked about the specific things that would still need to be developed in order to make a shuttle mission possible, Diaz was also unable to say what tools might need to be developed to conduct a shuttle servicing mission, should one be required, and what the costs might be associated with that. This was also confusing since the preparations for the SM4 mission were underway when Sean O’Keefe cancelled it.

Sooner or later, NASA is going to need to make some commitments to go ahead with one modality or another – human or robotic. Since money is not infinite and schedules are tight, it is not possible to pursue both options in a dual path mode. Alas, when asked when such a decision would be made, Diaz wouldn’t answer that question either. Diaz was unable to say when NASA would make a firm commitment to proceed with a robotic mission and not continue to keep the possibility of a shuttle mission open. Instead, Diaz and other NASA personnel would repeatedly say that they are not spending money to pursue a shuttle mission but that they are also “not precluding it”.

In the NASA world when you keep your options open, that means paying to keep certain contracts, personnel, and facilities in some state of readiness should the need arise to reactivate them. Such would be the case for SM4 hardware development, training, integration, etc. In addition, even if things are poised for fast reactivation, these things still take months – even years to be accomplished so as to allow the misison to proceed. In order to truly preserve (or not preclude) a shuttle mission to Hubble, a number of things will have to be started up well in advance of the actual mission itself.

Moreover, given that “extraordinary” measures (NASA’s word choice today) would be needed in order to fly a shuttle mission to Hubble – including having a rescue shuttle ready to fly on short notice. This would require that the ISS assembly sequence be called upon to incorporate insertion of these two back-to-back shuttle missions for several years to come. Indeed, one of the reasons why Sean O’Keefe made the decision to cancel the SM4 mission in the first was the burden (schedule pressure) it would impose on Return to Flight efforts and ISS assembly sequences thereafter. Now, it would seem, NASA is indeed going to keep these options alive albeit in a more subdued fashion.

The way NASA painted the picture today as to how it is going to keep its options open vis-à-vis flying a shuttle mission, they would apparently continue to keep that option open up to the moment a robotic mission actually left the launch pad – an assertion they did not seek to dismiss when specifically asked to do so today.

While Sean O’Keefe told GSFC employees yesterday that an amendment was being developed for Congress that would seek to adjust current funds to make such a robotic mission move forward no one on today’s telecon would address the issue of an amendment. This is curious since a number of them openly admitted that they were in the room when O’Keefe spoke. If their boss is willing to stand up and say these things in public – then why aren’t they willing to do so?

Moreover, at a time when NASA’s cost and schedule credibility are an issue with regard to the President’s new space vision, it is even more important that NASA do its homework. NASA made a decision not to do the Hubble mission. Now its time to either fish or cut bait.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.