May 12, 2004
Hubble Space Telescope Could Be Saved By Robot Mission

A robotic mission to replace the gyroscopes and batteries in the Hubble Space Telescope could probably be done if the money was made available to fund it.

The agency has budgeted about $300 million for a so-called controlled de-orbiting, but that might be only half the cost of a repair mission, particularly if it is attempted on a tight timeline. This could be bad news for Hubble supporters because, as Frank Sietzen reported recently for United Press International, there is only lukewarm support in Congress -- at a time of huge expenditures for the rebuilding of Iraq and record budget deficits -- for expanding the space agency's budget.

When President George W. Bush crafted his new space exploration vision for NASA last January, one of its key constituents was to retire the shuttle fleet and divert spending that originally was planned for the shuttle to develop a new generation of rockets. It could be difficult to justify diverting $500 million or $600 million of that effort for a Hubble rescue.

Put this in context. Why isn't there enough money available? The Bush Administration is cutting most areas of scientific research funding with the exception of national security and space programs. Yet the increase NASA's budget is to prepare for a return to the moon and eventually to make a big reality TV show produced on Mars (yes, I really do think a trip to Mars is a stunt with huge costs and minimal returns on investment).

Instead of trying to go to Mars the we could get a much bigger return on investment in space efforts by doing a lot of smaller things which each produce useful technologies. A robotic mission to Hubble is a great example of this approach. We'd get the extension of the life of a great scientific instrument along with useful technologies for doing space robotics. Another is the development of nuclear electric ion propulsion for a Jupiter probe. That program would be a useful stepping stone to the development of an asteroid defense system which itself would cost a small fraction of what a Mars trip would cost.

There are risks involved with the robotic approach.

Still, it will be risky. ''You can't underestimate the complexity and the dangers,'' said former astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology aerospace engineer who made three spacewalks to repair Hubble in 1993. ``Suppose you open a door but can't put in the new instrument. Now you've got a light leak, and you've lost your telescope.''

Dr. David L. Akin, Director of the Space Systems Laboratory at the University of Maryland has been leading the Ranger space robotics program which has produced technology that may be used on the proposed robotic repair mission to Hubble. Akin points out that pursuing the robotic approach to fix Hubble will yield robotic technology that would be useful for other space applications such as working on other satellites.

"I would like to think somebody at NASA realizes that to do humans on the moon and Mars, you're going to need robotics to set up lunar bases, to build transfer vehicles. To relieve the crew of having to do the grunt work of toting and carrying and so forth, you need dexterous robotics," he says.

"Everybody's willing on kind of a high-level conceptual basis to say, ‘Yeah, that's absolutely true."

But while NASA has commissioned all sorts of computer graphics showing astronauts and robots working together, Akin notes, "they haven't been willing to put a penny into actually making it come true."

I think NASA should put more effort into many smaller projects for that involve the development of useful new technologies and less into extremely large grand programs.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 May 12 02:12 PM  Space Exploration

Michael Mealling said at May 12, 2004 3:46 PM:

Most of what you mention in this article concerning what NASA is and isn't doing is changing much more rapidly and quietly than any of us are seeing. The new head of the CEV project is the former head of the Joint Strike Fighter project and is managing this entire thing on a much more aggresive, spiral development based plan.

Plus, the CEV is just the vehicle that might get us there. There are other developments that can and will change all of this if done correctly. The Centennial Challenge programs plus prizes setup directly by Congress will probably end up doing the small things that you're recommending. As the Aldridge Commission said at the beginning of every hearing, this isn't just a NASA program. Parts of this program aren't going to be done by them. Even if you can recognize the new NASA once they're done with splitting it up and transforming it. Imagine NASA where all of the Centers now act like a copy of JPL. Or where NASA puts out FAR Part 12 based bids for data purchases for lunar surface science and engineering.

The point is, you really can't conclude much from what you're seeing right now....

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