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Hubble telescope's fate not yet sealed, NASA chief says

By J. Ferguson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, April 14, 2005
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Comments made by NASA chief nominee Michael Griffin have UA astronomers hopeful that the ailing Hubble Space Telescope may be saved, if he is confirmed as NASA chief.

Griffin told senators Tuesday at his confirmation hearing that he would reconsider a decision by his predecessor to prohibit a manned mission to repair Hubble, citing safety concerns for the crew.

Former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe said that in light of the Columbia disaster, NASA had to ascribe to higher levels of safety for all future missions.

"The decision not to execute the planned shuttle servicing mission was made in the immediate aftermath of the loss of shuttle Columbia," Griffin said via a Web site release. "When we return to flight, it will be with essentially a new vehicle that will have a new risk analysis associated with it. ... At that time, I think we should reassess the earlier decision in light of what we learn after the return-to-flight."

This statement was the first public remark made since he was nominated for the position by President George W. Bush last month and gave renewed hope for the shuttle which recently was classified by NASA as "de-orbit" only.

This classification would have doomed Hubble to end scientific observation in the next few years, when NASA would then attach rockets to Hubble to safely crash it.

For Hubble to continue surveying the stars, a servicing mission is necessary to replace vital Hubble parts. This includes six gyroscopes and hydrogen batteries that power the space telescope.

The servicing mission may also add a new ultraviolet spectrometer and wide field and planetary camera to replace aging and broken components.

"With regard to the value of Hubble ... almost by itself, is the instrument that allowed us as a race of people to understand that it is true that we know nothing about 95 percent of the universe," Griffin said.

Rodger Thompson, professor of astronomy, said Griffin's statements are "very encouraging."

Thompson said that if a servicing mission is approved by NASA a mission could be quickly launched.

"It depends on the return-to-flight schedule," Thompson said. "The Hubble Space Telescope side (of the servicing mission) is ready to go."

NASA expects to resume shuttle flights sometime between May 15 and June 3. The agency grounded the fleet after the 2003 Columbia disaster. Columbia disintegrated during re-entry on its 28th mission, and all seven crew members aboard were killed in the disaster.

Thompson said the components for a servicing mission were ready at the time of the Columbia disaster and were shelved following the grounding of the fleet.

Chris Impey, professor of astronomy, said Griffin's decision to consider a manned mission reflects the recent scientific reports that refuted reasons NASA gave for not fixing Hubble - safety for astronauts, a robotic servicing mission and the cost of a mission.

"There are a few reports on his desk that removed the fig leafs," Impey said. "To his credit he has acknowledged these reports."

Impey said recent scientific studies by National Academies' National Research Council suggest a manned mission was not significantly dangerous as asserted by former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe.

Impey said Griffin himself dispelled the notion of a robotic servicing mission to Hubble during his testimony.

"With regard to robotic servicing, before I was nominated I was chair of the review committee for the robotic servicing mission," Griffin said. "That committee has designated that the mission is not feasible - in terms of the time, money and period before Hubble may become unusable."

Impey said recent scrutiny of NASA accounting procedures suggest the cost of the servicing mission is inflated.

"It's not a billion," Impey said.

Impey said the cost would be closer to $200 million than $300 million.

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