Inside the Capitol

Monday, November 07, 2005

11-9 Death Knell for Hubble?

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- A week seldom goes by that doesn't include a startling new discovery involving the Hubble Space Telescope. Yet, in less than three years, America's premiere eye in the sky will likely crash into the drink.
In the year of Hubble's 15th birthday, its death warrant was signed by a shift in White House priorities. Money that would have been used for necessary maintenance of the grand telescope has been redirected to manned missions to the moon and Mars.
Maintenance and repair missions to Hubble were part of the long-term plan to keep it in service for many years. A space shuttle crew made one of those missions to perform a repair early in Hubble's life.
But further shuttle missions to the telescope have been upstaged by visits to the International Space Station that has almost no scientific value.
When cries arose, not only from the scientific community but from the general public, about allowing Hubble to die, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration agreed that a servicing mission to Hubble would be considered after two successful missions once the shuttles returned to flight.
But the second return-to-flight has been indefinitely postponed because of problems with the first. And NASA has left itself wiggle room to declare the most recent flight not totally successful.
All the parts to fix the shuttle have been assembled at the Goddard Space Flight Center. A robotic mission also is a possibility but serious development of that project has not occurred.
Most scientists are livid. They see little scientific knowledge to be gained from manned trips to the moon and Mars that robots haven't and shouldn't continue to gather. Robots are cheaper, risk no lives and don't take holidays.
The main scientific knowledge gained from sending men to the moon, scientists contend, came from the rocks brought back. The only scientist in the Apollo program was New Mexico geologist Harrison Schmitt.
As for the economic value claimed for such flights, most scientists contend that if there really is such value, private industry will figure a way to get up there and set up shop.
Meanwhile NASA has shut down one of the telescope's three gyroscopes that was operating, in order to save it for later and extend Hubble's life another eight months. The current estimate for its demise is mid-2008.
There is a slight possibility help might arrive in time, but Hubble no longer is an administration priority and talk has started about how dangerous the shuttle mission would be.
Hubble also is being called old and outdated, despite the shuttle being much older, and other equipment used in the space program being even older than that. And some ground-based telescopes still are in use after a century.
The fact remains that Hubble continues to provide pictures that not only have high scientific value, but reveal to us all the beauty and magnificence of the universe.
The main reason for pessimism about Hubble, however, seems to be a feeling that the Bush administration has committed to let it die and no amount of scientific or public pressure can change that.
But there will be pressure. Just last week, Hubble took a look at Mars, during its closest approach to Earth and recorded a dust storm nearly a thousand miles wide and growing. And it's still growing.
Also last week, Hubble reported that Pluto has three moons instead of the one previously known. This discovery is sure to help Pluto retain its planet status.
For many years some scientists have challenged New Mexican Clyde Tombaugh's 1930 discovery. Just last week, the Albuquerque Journal carried a science column declaring "there is little doubt that if Pluto were discovered today it would probably not be classified as a planet." Think again.
The discoveries just keep coming, as more and more Americans become captivated by magnificent sights of phenomena never seen before and often never known to exist.
Letting Hubble crash to Earth is bad science, bad economy and bad politics, says Roswell's Dave Clary, the foremost expert on rocketeer Robert Goddard.
WED, 11-09-05

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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