NASA faces an oncoming crisis, and that is the Hubble question.
The situation, admittedly, is very different then it was two years ago. Then we had a NASA administrator who advertised his Philistine ignorance, who openly argued for deserting the space telescope, who ordered subordinates to disgrace themselves by parroting a party line that the great instrument had lost its value, who suppressed NASA data showing that a Hubble rescue mission involved no greater risk than a flight to the space station, and when these tactics failed, attempted to deceive Congress by offering a red-herring alternative of a robotic repair plan that every technically informed person knew was guaranteed to fail.
Now we have, in the form of Mike Griffin, an administrator who, at his confirmation hearings, took special pains to spell out the world-historic unique value of Hubble science. Not only that, but previously, despite Mr. O’Keefe’s so-very-clever redirection of lunar probe funding to Griffin’s Maryland-based Applied Physics Lab to try to get the noted engineer and his political patron, Sen. Mikulski (D-Md. ), to “play ball,” Griffin had not only failed to do so, but was forcefully dismissive in refuting the robotic repair hoax. Griffin knew that only a shuttle mission could save Hubble, and was not willing to pretend otherwise.
So there can be no question that Mike Griffin really wants to save Hubble. The question, however, is will he lead his team to actually do it? Let’s flash forward to the most likely outcome of this summer’s shuttle flight. The mission will succeed, but the flight data will show that there remained many unresolved problems that might have caused the loss of the vehicle. What do we do then? Do we stand down for another two years and lose the space telescope while we work on trying to make the shuttle “safe?” Or do we admit that the shuttle cannot be made safe, that flying to orbit is an intrinsically risky venture, and facing that risk, do what has to be done? Upon the answer to this question rests not only the future of Hubble, but of NASA.
The NASA leadership needs to understand that should it choose to fiddle, twiddle and worry until it is too late to save Hubble, they will disgrace the space agency forever. Excuses won’t matter. In addition to being the greatest scientific instrument in human history, and the primary (and arguably the only) real accomplishment of the human spaceflight program for the past three decades, Hubble is also $4 billion worth of the taxpayers’ property. Four-billion dollars is the cost of a brand new nuclear powered aircraft carrier, with its airplanes. Based on past flight experience, with no credit taken for any positive improvements effected by $15 billion in expenditures over the past three years of effective program stand down, a shuttle mission to Hubble has an expected success probability of 50-to-1.
So consider the case of the captain of a U.S. Navy nuclear aircraft carrier who returned with the following report: “The ship developed a leak. We might have saved her by sending seven volunteers below to patch her up, but the odds in their favor were only 50-to-1, so we decided it would be best just to give up the ship.”
Such an officer would be court martial ed, and while a NASA civilian leadership acting in a similarly feckless manner might escape the penalties meted out by the military justice system in such an instance, they would not escape equal public derision. They would put a yellow feather in the meatball that might never be pulled out.
Indeed, under such circumstances, many in Congress might consider themselves fully justified in canceling the entire human spaceflight program, and certainly the Moon-Mars initiative. After all, why should the nation spend tens or hundreds of billions of dollars developing Moon-Mars flight hardware if NASA might later discover that such missions (which perforce will carry a much greater risk of loss than 1 in 50 ) are not “safe,” and therefore should not be flown? It would be like blowing the household budget buying advanced scuba gear as a present for a demanding child who is afraid to go into the water, or expensive ski equipment for one fearful of the snow.
With such an asterisk placed next to NASA’s credibility, the Moon-Mars initiative would indeed be doomed.
Now consider the other path. What if, after the worrisome data comes in from the next shuttle flight, Mike Griffin calls a press conference, looks nation in the eye, and says: “Yes, we are concerned. The shuttle has not been made safe, and it is apparent that it cannot be made safe. It is, as I have stated before, an intrinsically flawed design. Yet, there is a job to be done, that has to be done now, and the shuttle is the only thing we have that can do it. So it’s going to be risky. We are not claiming that this is going to be safe. It’s not going to be safe when we fly to the Moon and Mars either. Human space exploration means flying into harm’s way. But this country has 130,000 youngsters putting their lives on the line to do their job in Iraq right now, and we here at NASA are willing to face the risks necessary to do ours. We are launching to save Hubble.”
Then the mission is launched. The odds are 50-to-1 it will succeed. Hubble is saved with the whole world watching, and the astronauts get a ticker tape parade. NASA’s credibility soars, as at long last the nation sees in it once again the real Right Stuff. The Moon-Mars initiative becomes unstoppable.
It is the irony of Griffin’s tenure that a man so committed and so suited to lead the agency to the Moon, Mars and beyond should be forced by circumstances to take his turn at the helm before the program can truly begin. Yet, like Moses, Griffin can at least lead his people to the very edge of the Promised Land, should he muster the strength in himself and in them to do what is necessary. But should he fail to do so, he will leave the tribe to perish wandering in the desert.
That is the Hubble test: NASA can reaffirm its identity as an exemplar of the American pioneer spirit, or it can, to its own eternal shame and great loss to humanity, chose safety over duty. It can choose courage and victory, or dishonor and defeat.
Fortune favors the bold. Go for it Mike.
Robert Zubrin, an astronautical engineer, is the president of the Mars Society (www.marssociety.org) and the author of The Case for Mars, Entering Space, and Mars on Earth.