NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope: A Fate Far From Certain

By Keith Cowing
March 14, 2004
Filed under ,
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope: A Fate Far From Certain

In January 2004, just days after the rollout of the President’s new space policy, Sean O’Keefe announced his decision not to proceed with SM4 – the fifth, and last scheduled Space Shuttle Servicing Mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. This mission would have installed new gyroscopes, and added several new instruments to the aging telescope allowing it to operate until the end of the decade.

The plan had been that this would allow the research community to continue to utilize Hubble as NASA’s next space telescope, the Webb Space Telescope, came online roughly around the time Hubble would be going offline. (see “Hubble’s End – or a New Beginning?“)

Needless to say this was not a popular decision and its proximity to the President’s announcement took a lot of wind out of NASA’s sails.

Caught Off Guard

NASA was caught somewhat off guard by the whole controversy and took some time to get back on its feet. Despite a cause and effect linkage by the public and the media between the new space policy and the decision not to fly SM4, the truth is that the two were not connected. Rather, both decisions pursued parallel paths toward announcement.

Indeed, O’Keefe had already arrived at the conclusion that SM4 needed to be cancelled in November 2003 – more than a month before the new space policy was agreed to by the President.

No mention whatsoever is made of the SM4 decision in the President’s space policy. Conversely, NASA has made no reference to the new space policy in justifying the SM4 decision. Indeed had not word slipped out early to Congress, this announcement would not have been made for a number of weeks. O’Keefe decided to make the announcement when he did – and to do so first directly to the Hubble team rather than let them hear it elsewhere – or figure it out once the FY 2005 budget was released a few weeks hence.

On one side of the argument are those who seek strict adherence – and in many cases going beyond Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) recommendations – and that these recommendations are sacrosanct. Others, using the emotions that we all feel about the marvelous Hubble, seek to poke holes in the logic path whereby Sean O’Keefe arrived at the decision to cancel SM4 using semantics and parsed logic to make it seem that there is either no difference in risk between a mission to t he International Space Station (ISS) and one to Hubble – or, in some cases, that mission to Hubble might be slightly less risky than one to the ISS.

NASA’s Rationale

NASA’s decision was based, as O’Keefe would repeat in the coming months, on safety issues. Budgetary issues did not factor in at all. In a white paper released a few days ago, NASA summarized the rationale it had been repeating for nearly 2 months:

Without the benefit of docking at the ISS many new tools, processes, and techniques would be required for inspection and possible repair of the TPS. More significant would be the requirement to dedicate two Space Shuttles to the mission to ensure astronaut safety. In the event of a significant problem with no safe haven for the astronauts to wait as in ISS missions, a second Shuttle would have to be launched and employ untried and uncertified techniques to perform a rescue. Hence, a Shuttle based HST servicing mission presents known additional risks, and offers few options to respond to serious problems in orbit.

Recognizing the increased risks involved in all Shuttle flights following the tragic loss of the Columbia and crew NASA elected to reduce its planned Shuttle manifest to only missions to the International Space Station (ISS). The decision was also made, on the basis of risk, to not pursue a final servicing mission to the HST, but instead to investigate other options to extend the life of the Hubble.

These explanations and concerns from astronaut safety not withstanding, public outcry has continued unabated since January with critical editorials appearing on a weekly basis in one place or another. Needless to say the reaction from the astronomical community – and the general public – caught everyone at NASA by surprise. As such, politicians soon got into the act.

In January Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a long time Hubble supporter (the Space Telescope Science Institute is in Maryland) expressed a desire to have a panel of some sort review the decision. O’Keefe suggested that Adm. Hal Gehman, chairman of the CAIB be the one to review the decision to cancel the SM4 servicing mission. Mikulski agreed. Contrary to what many people thought at the time, Gehman undertook this task as an individual. He did not reconvene the CAIB.

(Semi)anonymous Voices

On 8 February 2004 several anonymous documents were posted on SpaceRef and NASA Watch which had been circulating within NASA, Congress, and the astronomy community and had served as the basis for an article in the New York Times.

These documents, which purported to be an analysis of the risk attendant with conducting the SM4 mission, called some of NASA’s conclusions into doubt. While the initial authorship of the documents remains uncertain, Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) director William Smith (whose name appears in the electronic attributes of these two documents) was actively circulating them – including providing copies to Congressional staffers making no secret of the fact.

Shortly after these documents began to have a broader circulation, O’Keefe offered representatives from NASA’s Hubble management and the Space Telescope Science Institute an opportunity to participate in the Space Flight Leadership Council meeting that discussed Shuttle Return to Flight (RTF) issues on 19 February 2004. Indeed, it was at this meeting that the decision to slip the launch date of STS-114 back to March 2005 was made. Curiously, despite the offer to have a face-to-face interaction with the Shuttle program on this issue, the Hubble folks declined the offer to participate.

As such, the Hubble community seemed to feel more comfortable with openly circulating anonymous documents than participating in a substantive, on the record, open discussion of the issues with the agency’s Shuttle management team.

Eventually, the dialog widened. Websites such as http://savehubble.org/ and http://savethehubble.com/ appeared to collect support for a reversal of the decision. AURA began to track the politics, and NASA Watch readers chimed in as well.

Other Options

Before the announcement to overtly cancel the SM4 mission, NASA had been investigating the possibility of having an automated spacecraft dock with Hubble and steer it back to a destructive reentry. The price tag was not set in stone but was in the $300 million range. (see “Hubble’s End – or a New Beginning?“)

The notion that a spacecraft could dock and then do something else with Hubble – such as place it in a higher orbit, move it down to the ISS for repair, or augment failing systems with new ones was deemed by NASA as being too risky and undesirable from the point of view of the Office of Space Science. In addition, there was the prospect of having to fund a restored Hubble at a time when funds were needed to fund the Webb Space Telescope. But this was prior to the final cancellation of SM4.

As the ramifications of the prospect of no human flights directly to Hubble began to sink in (accentuated by public outcry), NASA’s stance vis a vis alternate methods began to change. There had been extensive studies underway which sought to find ways to use software and other fixes to allow the telescope to perform even if the number of gyroscopes went below what had previously been considered necessary.

Eventually, regardless of the ingenuity brought to bear the telescope would face a slow decay in capability – due either to failed gyroscopes, batteries – or perhaps some other malady.

On 20 February 2004, NASA issued Request for Information “Hubble Space Telescope End of Mission Alternatives” whose objective was “1) to invite industry to submit information that will allow NASA to assess various design alternatives while formulating its detailed requirements for the re-entry or orbit boost mission; 2) to invite alternative mission concepts by which NASA may more fully accomplish its goal of maximizing HST science productivity; e.g., life extension approaches and techniques, with or without robotic servicing (which might simultaneously further objectives of NASA’s new Exploration initiative); 3) to improve NASA’s knowledge of industry’s capability; and 4) to improve the overall understanding of current HST de-orbit or orbit boost mission plans.”

NASA’s hope was that alternatives not involving human spaceflight – at least dedicated missions to Hubble in its current orbit – could be developed as a result of this RFI. Initially skeptical of alternate approaches, O’Keefe quickly warmed to the notion once the ideas started to roll in.

Congress Takes Action

Concern about the decision continued none the less. On 3 March 2004 Rep. Mark Udall, within whose Congressional district Ball Aerospace has a large facility which does Hubble related work, introduced a resolution which “strongly recommends that the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration appoint an independent panel of expert scientists and engineers inside and outside of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to examine all possible options for safely carrying out the planned servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.”

Hubble Speaks Out On Its Own Behalf

When problems arise with Hubble, the spacecraft itself often serves as its best spokesman. On 9 March 2004 the Space Telescope Science Institute did what it does best: it unveiled yet another stunning achievement by Hubble- the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF). According to a press release this is “the million-second-long exposure reveals the first galaxies to emerge from the so-called “dark ages,” the time shortly after the big bang when the first stars reheated the cold, dark universe.”

This is what Hubble is all about and why people get so emotional about the deliberate demise of something they have come to closely identify with.

Speaking at the unveiling of the HUDF image, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said: “This is a stunning example of why the world loves Hubble – why I will continue to stand for Hubble. I will get the best minds to study the future of Hubble – for its future should not be decided by one man in a NASA back room – but by a transparent process. I know a second opinion is due but I want you to know I will not stop there.”

At the same event, University of Arizona astronomer and NICMOS Principal Investigator Roger Thompson said: “I am not sure why Sean O’Keefe made the decision this way. In his statement he said that he wanted the decision to fall on his shoulders alone. Most of the community would like to share that burden with him. We do not think this decision is final.”

Another source, requesting anonymity, said “we expect a Congressionally formed panel that will review O’Keefe’s decision – why it was made in a closed way, and Adm. Gehman’s letter as well. We expect that to be done in the next 30 days.” Another source speaking anonymously said “We have only just begun to fight”.

Gehman Responds

On 11 March 2004 the contents of Gehman’s review became known. In a multi-page letter dated 5 March 2004 Gehman noted that “the CAIB no longer exists” and said that the view expressed in this letter are his own. Those who sought a ringing endorsement of the decision were disappointed. Those seeking a voice that would speak forcibly against the decision were equally let down.

While not overtly endorsing or disputing Sean O’Keefe’s decision, Gehman noted that NASA “must develop an autonomous on orbit inspect and repair capability” given that some missions, including those intended to travel to the ISS with its greater capacity for inspection and repair, might not reach their final destination and require the ability to handle contingencies within on board resources.”

NASA’s contention has been that a mission to a non-ISS destination, i.e. Hubble would require the development of special inspection and repair capabilities. Gehman’s view is that NASA needs to develop such capabilities anyways regardless of what destination Shuttle missions are sent to. Indeed, his emphasis, voiced several times, is on the risk associated with launch and reentry and said “within reasonable bounds, whatever one does once on orbit, it doesn’t change the total risk factor very much.”

NASA clearly takes exception to that opinion and has mandated that the ISS will be configured to serve as an orbital inspection and repair facility for Shuttles – and that it will be provisioned as a “safe haven” such that a shuttle crew could spend 90 days (or more) aboard the ISS should their damaged orbiter not be capable of repair with the resources currently at hand on orbit.

As for the issue of safe haven – something ISS offers but a Hubble mission does not, Gehman is silent admitting however that the CAIB did not look at total mission risk i.e. the many things, separate from launch and reentry, that can increase or decrease the risk level of any particular mission.

Gehman went on to say that “bottom line: complying fully with the CAIB’s RTF recommendations is less a challenge when factoring in the ISS. The CAIB allowed more latitude in complying with our recommendations for non – ISS missions which may be slightly more risky, taking into account only the debris shedding threat to the orbiter.”

In summary Gehman’s letter is wishy washy in its clarity with regard to his opinion on NASA’s decision not to fly the SM4 mission – one which uses adherence to CAIB recommendations as the core reason. This is rather surprising given the scathing review made of what NASA could or should have done on STS-107 and other missions in terms of safety, risk assessment, operations, etc. The CAIB makes it abundantly clear that significant changes need to be made in the way NASA does things when flying the shuttle fleet.

Gehman passed on a chance to backup the core recommendations that the CAIB had made. Indeed, in addition to not answering the question asked of him, he punted on the issue and suggested that further study needed to be done noting “I suggest only a deep and rich study of the entire gain/risk equation can answer the question of whether an extension of the life of the wonderful Hubble telescope is worth the risks involved, and that is beyond the scope of this letter.”

Curiously, the man whose panel pounded out the unrelenting mantra of ‘prove that it’s safe’ now suggested in this first great test of the veracity of what the CAIB had recommended that NASA could go ahead and only ‘do your best’.

Congress Reacts to Gehman

Following release of the letter to Sen. Mikulski and NASA, Sean O’Keefe sent a letter to Mikulski with regard to Gehman’s letter. Citing addition delays in the first RTF shuttle missions, O’Keefe expressed a concern that the sort of schedule pressure might result – the sort that the CAIB had “quite correctly articulated would significantly undermine the safe operation of the Shuttle.”
O’Keefe went on to note that some of the information received in response to the RFI “appear more likely than the low probability of a timely servicing mission in compliance with [CAIB] recommendations.”

Sen. Mikulski and Sen. Kit Bond, in a joint letter on 11 March 2004 to Sean O’Keefe, responded to Gehman’s letter by echoing Gehman’s call for more study of the decision process and asked that the National Academy of Sciences conduct a study of the risks inherent in such a mission. Moreover, Mikulski and Bond sent a letter on the same day to the General Accounting Office requesting a study to “examine the potential costs of a servicing mission and the costs of fully implementing all of the recommendations” of the CAIB. They requested the report be completed by 1 July 2004.

Mikulski and Bond also requested that NASA “take no action to stop , suspend, or terminate any contracts or employment in connection with the final servicing mission until this study is completed, and Congress has taken action on NASA’s fiscal year 2005 budget. Should it be determined that a servicing mission should move forward, it is critical that time not be lost.”

As such, at this juncture given that Mikulski and Bond asked that nothing be halted in the process of preparing for SM4 – and that the NAS look into whether this mission should be done, leaves the clear impression that they think the decision is not final. And if that decision is not final, then there is a possibility that it can be altered.

NASA Responds

In contrast, O’Keefe made it very clear in a meeting with reporters on the afternoon of 11 March “I will not authorize a [Shuttle] mission that is not in compliance with CAIB [recommendations].” He noted that no member of Congress had yet called for this mission to happen – rather that the decision process be reviewed. With regards to Mikulski’s concerns he said “we both agree that the servicing mission needs to be done in accordance with CAIB recommendations.” To make his point clear O’Keefe said “There is only one person who will make that judgment – that person is sitting here.”

Earlier in the day O’Keefe had testified before Mikulski and Bond at a Hearing o of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on VA-HUD and Independent Agencies. When the prospect of reviews by GAO and NAS were brought up O’Keefe welcomed both efforts and whatever results would be produced. But he did not back off on the decision he had made.

Despite this apparent drawing of a line in the sand, both sides are closer together than the casual observer might think. As O’Keefe said no one in Congress has said or implied that NASA should be directed by Congress to fly the SM4 mission. Nor have any of them said that CAIB recommendations should be flaunted in so doing.

Rather, those who disagree with O’Keefe’s decision seek to have a third party review the criteria for that decision. If the response comes back that O’Keefe was on firm ground in making the decision then one would think that the issue would be put to rest. It is somewhat unlikely that a panel would suggest that not having the safe haven capabilities offered on ISS missions as being anything other than an increase in risk to the crew – a risk that O’Keefe decided to avoid in favor of other alternatives. Moreover, it is doubtful, given the Columbia accident, that any panel is going to fault NASA for being too cautious.

Going to Hubble Country

The next day O’Keefe, Office of Space Science Associate Administrator Ed Weiler and NASA Chief Scientist (and two time Hubble Servicing Mission astronomer/astronaut) John Grunsfeld met with Hubble staff at Goddard Space Flight Center.

The meeting opened in a somewhat tense mode according to those in the room. O’Keefe began with a 20 minute presentation about the Return to Flight process, the CAIB report, and the overall legacy resulting from the Columbia accident.

Grunsfeld then reflected back to where he was two years ago on 12 March 2002. He was in space having just completed the last Hubble Service upgrade on STS-109 and was on his way home to Earth. In contrast, one year ago he was in Hemphill, Texas examining a piece of Columbia’s wing that he might well have touched during an EVA just a year before.

With Grunsfeld’s recollections, the tone of the meeting turned rather somber.

O’Keefe then went on to reiterate what had been discussed in hearings before the Senate – specifically that O’Keefe had made it clear that NASA would not fly the Shuttle until it could be certain that it was complying with all the recommendations made by the CAIB.

In order to assess possible means of not only deorbiting Hubble, but also of alternate ways to possibly extend its life, NASA issued a RFI in February 2004. O’Keefe told the attendees that the RFI response received thus far were interesting and that a number of the warranted close, further examination.

When asked if all ongoing -activities related to Hubble servicing would continue to be funded O’Keefe replied that this all depended on how aggressive – and how creative NASA could be in finding ways to extend Hubble’s life. However, he did challenge the attendees not to look at Hubble as a jobs program and that they should not count on a confrontation between himself and Sen. Mikulski

Arm waving from Mars

Of course, in every discussion, someone has to do some arm waving to draw attention to themselves. Mars Society President Robert Zubrin has made repeated comments on behalf of his society to the effect that the SM4 mission is no more risky than a mission to the ISS, and in some cases, may be slightly less risky. He often refers to such a decision by O’Keefe as “moral cowardice”. On his website, Zubrin cites the same anonymous documents which had appeared weeks before on NASA Watch – after they were being circulated by AURA’s Smith et al – claiming that they were” leaked by NASA engineers.”

Zubrin goes on to make the logical leap that if NASA does not accept the risk inherent in a Shuttle mission to service the Hubble that NASA will not be able to take the risks involved in implementing the President’s new space initiative. There is a big hole in Zubrin’s logic. This decision concerns SM4 – a flight which would use a Space Shuttle Orbiter to service the Hubble Space Telescope. When we travel to the Moon, Mars and beyond – and all the places Zubrin wishes to humans to visit – we will not do so in a Space Shuttle Orbiter, but rather in a new breed of spacecraft being developed under Project Constellation – the Crew Exploration Vehicle. Indeed, NASA plans to make these new spaceships far more reliable and forgiving than the current Space Shuttle. Zubrin’s opinion is not unlike saying that you can’t go on a distant mountain vacation in your brand new 4 wheel drive jeep in a few years because you decided not to take an accident prone delivery truck out on a dangerous road near to home.

Given Zubrin’s dismissive predictions about the President’s space policy before its announcement and his silence for weeks afterwards, the only possible reason for the leader of an organization interested in sending humans to Mars to devote so much energy and verbiage to this unrelated topic is self-promotion. Indeed, when challenged to defend Zubrin’s public comments, the overwhelming majority of the Mars Society’s Steering Committee (which is supposed to set policy) would not even reply to a request to comment on the record. It is certainly meritorious for all who appreciate Hubble’s phenomenal contributions to human knowledge to lament its possible demise and express their concern. On the contrary, to use the issue as Zubrin has done so as to promote one’s personal agenda is akin to being an ambulance chaser.

What’s Next?

Given the scholarly pace with which the National Academy of Sciences conducts its reviews it would be unlikely to see the results of the thorough review requested by Mikulski until late Summer 2004 – certainly not before the 1 July 2004 response date made of the report from the General Accounting Office. The response due date for the Hubble RFI Is 22 March 2004 and Rep. Udall’s Resolution is no where close to a vote.

As such, the only immediate action might come from NASA’s response to the ideas submitted to the RFI – perhaps a request from several submitters to sit down for more detailed discussions. In addition the NAS is likely to hold several panel meetings (once a panel has been established) which one could expect to see in May. Meanwhile, some preparations for SM4 were already completed and are winding down. Others are on hold pending the resolution of Congress’ request for review.

As such other than periodic flare-ups of opinion, some interim reports, and the inevitable arm waving, the next big news is due later this summer.

Related Links

  • 11 March 2004: Statement of Sean O’Keefe before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on VA-HUD-Independent Agencies
  • 11 March 2004: Mikulski Questions NASA Administrator on Decision to Cancel Hubble Servicing Mission
  • 11 March 2004: NASA Reviewer Calls for Further Study of Decision to Abandon Hubble Telescope
  • 11 March 2004: NASA White Paper: Cancellation of the Fifth (SM-4) Hubble Servicing Mission
  • 11 March 2004: Letter from Sen. Bond and Sen. Mikulski (PDF)

  • 10 March 2004: Letter from Administrator O’Keefe to Sen. Barbara Milkulski (PDF)
  • 9 March 2004: NASA/ESA Hubble’s Deepest View Ever of the Universe Unveils Earliest Galaxies
  • 5 March 2004: Letter from Adm. Gehman to Senator Mikulski (PDF)
  • 3 March 2004: Remarks of Rep. Mark Udall upon introduction of a Resolution Recognizing the Hubble Space Telescope’s Accomplishments and Recommending Reconsideration
  • 3 March 2004: Resolution Introduced in the House of Representatives to Establish an Independent Panel to Review NASA’s Decision Regarding the Hubble Space Telescope
  • 20 February 2004: NASA Request for Information: Hubble Space Telescope End of Mission Alternatives
  • 20 February 2004: Hubble Space Telescope: End-of-Mission Alternatives Dataset
  • 19 February 2004: NASA Updates Space Shuttle Return to Flight Plans
  • 9 February 2004: NASA Releases Implementation Plan for Space Shuttle Return to Flight and Beyond Volume 1 Revision 1.2
  • 8 February 2004: Anonymous Documents Describe Shuttle Hubble Mission Risks
  • 26 January 2004: Hubble’s End – or a New Beginning?
  • 20 August 2003: Space Tug to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope’s Rescue?
  • 31 July 2003: Expected Hubble Space Telescope Science Lifetime After SM4
  • 31 July 2003: Increasing Hubble’s Capability with New Instruments
  • 21 July 2003: NASA Hubble Space Telescope End of Mission (EOM) Options
  • SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.