New NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said last Tuesday that he would reconsider his predecessor’s decision to ban humans from repairing the ailing Hubble Space Telescope.
The remarks spark new hope for Hubble, which seemed previously doomed to a watery grave after former NASA Chief Sean O’Keefe canceled a manned repair mission – on the grounds that a space Shuttle flight to the telescope would be ‘too risky’.
Following the Columbia disaster, It is perceived that O’Keefe could not justify sending up a manned Shuttle to the telescope without the ‘safe haven’ option of the International Space Station nearby. Such a mission, he feared, would leave the crew stranded on the remote telescope should anything go wrong.
As a safer alternative, subsequent studies of a robotic repair mission suggested that the necessary technology would not be ready in time to save the telescope. In light of this, a repair mission by astronauts would be far more efficient in replacing the telescope’s worn out batteries and with immediate effect.
Nevertheless – without any sort of repair mission – Hubble’s gyroscopes are expected to fail and its batteries to run out between three and five years from now.
“The decision not to execute the planned Shuttle servicing mission was made in the immediate aftermath of the loss of Shuttle Columbia,” Griffin told senators at his confirmation hearing. “When we Return to Flight, it will be with essentially a new vehicle that will have a new risk analysis associated with it…. At that time, I think we should reassess the earlier decision in light of what we learn after the Return to Flight.”
NASA expects to resume Shuttle flights sometime between May 15 and July 31 this year. The agency grounded the fleet after the flagship Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board.
“If NASA decides that the resumed flights are still too dangerous for a Hubble repair mission, the agency will be left with no choice but to de-orbit the telescope,” said Griffin.
To do that, NASA would send a robot to push Hubble through Earth’s atmosphere and into the Pacific ocean.
Griffin, 55, is a widely popular choice to lead the U.S. space agency. Democrat and Republican senators at Griffin’s confirmation hearing praised the physicist, who holds seven degrees and currently heads the space department at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.