WASHINGTON — The White House has eliminated funding for a mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope from its 2006 budget request and directed NASA to focus solely on deorbiting the popular spacecraft at the end of its life, according to government and industry sources.
NASA is debating when and how to announce the change of plans. Sources told Space News that outgoing NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe likely will make the announcement Feb. 7 during the public presentation of the U.S. space agency’s 2006 budget request.
That budget request, according to sources, will not include any money for Hubble servicing but will include some money for a mission to attach a propulsion module to Hubble that would be needed to safely deorbit the spacecraft into the Pacific Ocean.
NASA would not need to mount such a mission before the end of the decade.
O’Keefe’s spokesman Glenn Mahone declined comment Jan. 22. “I don’t have anything for you on that right now,” he said.
Sources said O’Keefe received his marching orders on Hubble Jan. 13 during a meeting with White House officials to finalize the agency’s 2006 budget request. With both robotic- and shuttle-based servicing options expected to cost well in excess of $1 billion, sources said, NASA was told it simply could not afford to service Hubble given everything else NASA has on its agenda, including preparing the shuttle fleet to fly again.
A deorbit-only mission is expected to cost a fraction of what a servicing mission would cost and would not have to be launched as soon. NASA has said it would not need to deorbit Hubble before 2013. To save Hubble, NASA would lave to launch by 2008.
O’Keefe set off a political firestorm last January when NASA announced that he had cancelled one last planned space shuttle mission to service the popular telescope. Under pressure from Congress and the public, NASA agreed to look for other ways to extend Hubble’s life.
By last summer, NASA was aggressively pursuing a robotic repair option that by the agency’s own early estimates would cost over $1 billion. Outside estimates put the price tag at over $2 billion.
Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences last year to assess options for extending Hubble’s life. In December a blue-ribbon panel reported back that a robotic-servicing mission stood little chance of getting the job done before the telescope’s predicted 2008 demise and urged NASA to launch a space shuttle crew to perform the necessary repairs. NASA’s response was that it would continue working on the robotic repair option and make a decision sometime this year about whether to proceed.
Hubble needs new batteries and gyroscopes to remain in service through the end of the decade. Engineers predict that Hubble will be down to one working gyroscope sometime in 2007, rendering the telescope incapable of scientific operations.
The telescope’s batteries are expected to last a couple years longer, but once they fail, the telescope will shut down and freeze within a matter of hours and be beyond repair.
NASA had not yet informed key congressional committees with jurisdiction over the space agency.
But congressional sources told Space News they had been hearing last week that significant changes were afoot for Hubble.
These same sources, however, said they had not ruled out that the White House and NASA might be canceling the Hubble-servicing mission as the opening gambit in the annual struggle that goes on every budget year, fully expecting that Congress will add money to the agency’s budget over the course of the year to pay for a mission that has strong public support.
Regardless of NASA’s intent, one Senate source predicted that the decision would “go over like a lead balloon” for many lawmakers. A House source concurred. “It’s going to really upset the Hubble crowd and that includes some members of Congress,” the House source said.
Congress earmarked $291 million of NASA’s 2005 budget to serve as a down payment on some type of Hubble-servicing mission.
However, NASA’s initial operating plan for 2005, sent to Congress last month for review, only set aside $175 million of that amount for Hubble, with the rest of the money allocated to other agency priorities.
The House Science Committee is planning to hold a hearing, possibly as early as Feb. 2, to assess options for Hubble’s future.
Among the witnesses the committee expects to call is Louis Lanzerotti, the chairman of the National Academy’s Hubble panel.
NASA has already awarded contracts for the Hubble mission, the largest being a $330 million contract awarded to Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems last September to design the spacecraft for the robotic mission.
NASA said at the time that contract included work on a deorbit module, but that if NASA elected to forgo Hubble repairs, the agency likely would award a new contract for a standalone Hubble disposal mission.
Hubble has no onboard propulsion system and NASA has judged that letting the school bus-sized telescope re-enter the atmosphere on its own would pose an unacceptable risk to people and property on the ground.