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Published: Friday, 1/23/2004

The trouble with Hubble

The headlines on President Bush's space initiative, with that new focus on landing astronauts on the moon and Mars, brought its share of cheers and jeers from around the world when unveiled last week.

Anyone even vaguely familiar with the accomplishments of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) probably will boo wholeheartedly at the fine print in NASA's current plans for implementing the initiative.

The space agency has a three-strikes-and-you're-out vision for one of the all-time marvels of the space age. Now NASA is going to hand the HST a pink slip, retirement papers, and a death certificate all wrapped in one.

Since launch in 1990, Hubble has revolutionized astronomy and written new chapters in humanity's understanding of the universe.

Images the orbiting astronomical observatory, on station far beyond the blurring effects of Earth's atmosphere, have shown include planets orbiting around other stars and set a new age for the universe (about 13.7 billion years).

Hubble has peered into the intergalactic nurseries where stars are born, found that the "dark force," a mysterious form of energy, is pushing objects in the universe apart at an accelerating rate, and produced hundreds of other scientific bonuses.

The space agency says it must focus fully on Mr. Bush's new goals. And that focus, it says, means canceling all future space shuttle missions to service HST. Without those missions, HST's eye on the universe will close by 2008, and the whole observatory will drop out of orbit and burn in the Earth's atmosphere by 2010.

NASA probably would have had to sacrifice HST even without the new moon-Mars initiative. The Columbia disaster made that almost inevitable, reducing the space shuttle fleet to three vehicles and forcing cancellation of so many flights.

How could NASA possibly devote one shuttle mission to an HST servicing and still meet its No. 1 priority of completing construction of the International Space Station?

Come on now, NASA, fess up. Didn't Mr. Bush give your image-conscious managers a golden opportunity to blame HST's sacrifice not on their own failure in losing Columbia, but on an exciting new reach for the stars?

Not to worry, NASA says. A bigger and better orbiting observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, will replace Hubble.

NASA would do well to stifle that failure-is-no-option mindset, which investigators just a few months ago blamed for the Columbia disaster.

Why not make every effort to keep HST aloft and fit for action - even in a slumber mode - as long as possible?

Future accidents, budget crunches, or other unforeseen circumstances could kill plans for a replacement.

Preserving HST would give the United States the option of reactivating the telescope and retaining that marvelous eye on the universe in the years ahead.

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