NASA Administrator Michael Griffin’s confirmation testimony, in addition to showing a certain wit, also showed the wisdom of a seasoned engineer. Such wisdom was particularly clear in his testimony on the future of the Hubble Space Telescope. In response to a direct question from Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Griffin responded: “And so I believe that the choice comes down to reinstating a shuttle servicing mission or possibly a very simple robotic de orbiting mission. The decision not to execute the planned shuttle servicing mission was made in the immediate aftermath of the loss of Columbia. When we return to flight, it will be with essentially a new vehicle, which will have a new risk analysis associated with it and so on and so forth. At that time, I think we should reassess the earlier decision, and in light of what we learn after we return to flight we should revisit the earlier decision.”
Boiled down, this plan is eminently reasonable: See how return to flight goes, and then freshly consider what to do about Hubble. The new administrator has wisely opened the door for a new look at the future of America’s most productive astronomical instrument.
Assuming that return to flight does go well, NASA should make another good decision and choose to upgrade Hubble.
Decisions based on real data and certainty tend to be better than those based on a lack of data and uncertainty. Griffin’s confirmation testimony wisely resets the agency’s plans to a more reasonable, wait-and-see mode. If, God forbid, there is a problem with the next shuttle mission, then NASA and the space community will have more serious challenges before it than servicing Hubble.
If, on the other hand, it goes well — then the right thing to do is to make a historic fifth journey to our window on the universe.
There are at least four good reasons to service Hubble:
First, a shuttle servicing mission would be a concrete demonstration of the importance of humans in space exploration at a time when such a demonstration is needed. Simply put, a successful Hubble servicing mission at this point requires both people and robotic systems working together. A shuttle mission thus supports a central tenet of the Vision for Space Exploration: that we must send humans to explore the space frontier.
Second, the public wants it. Here at the National Space Society, we have received innumerable pleas from our members to do what we can to “save Hubble.” It has stirred some of the strongest feelings amongst the public that we have ever seen as advocates for space. Committing to a plan that the public manifestly desires will be to achieve a key recommendation of the Aldridge Commission: to periodically achieve successes related to space exploration that will buoy public support.
Third, important Democratic leaders want the Hubble to be serviced. As many have noted, achievement of the Vision for Space Exploration will require bipartisan support long into the future. Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) made their interest in Hubble explicitly clear during the administrator’s confirmation hearing. NASA and the space community must, where possible, seek to maintain bipartisan support for the vision. Such leaders also might be partners in allocating additional resources for such a mission.
Fourth, upgrading Hubble would enable it to continue its prodigious scientific productivity. At a time when there are questions from the science community about the president’s Vision for Space Exploration, preserving and extending the life of NASA’s most productive scientific instrument would be a strong sign that the vision will further science.
Administrator Griffin has started strong, with broad endorsements from all corners of Washington and with smart answers at his confirmation hearing. His engineering skills and Washington experience will serve him extremely well in the trials ahead. His initial pronouncements on Hubble bode well for his tenure.
George Whitesides is executive director of the National Space Society (NSS), and Gary Barnhard is chairman of the NSS executive committee.