We don’t have anything against the Hubble Space Telescope, per se. We count as a success its mission to peer deeply into space and give astronomers and cosmologists a close-up view of objects once only imagined, as well as clues about the origin of the universe.
But when NASA and the Bush administration announced in January they were going to let the aging and at-risk telescope fall from space and put the savings into other ventures — including a Mars mission — we saw it as a hopeful sign.
It’s not that we think the Mars shot is a good use of limited resources. What we found exciting was the prospect that the too-scattered space agency might finally be signaling a willingness to set priorities, narrow its focus and make hard choices in its selection of missions.
The judgment then was that the telescope would have to fall so the savings could be plowed into other priorities. NASA said it wasn’t worth the risk to continue using manned shuttle flights for Hubble repair missions. And that willingness to narrow the focus and make trade-offs is something that has been sorely lacking at NASA in recent times, with disastrous results.
Yet just a few weeks ago, after an intense lobbying campaign by scientists who use Hubble, NASA officials did an about-face — a seemingly small step that could signal a giant leap backward for efforts to reform the agency.
NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe reportedly received a cheer from staff at Maryland’s Goddard Space Flight Center when he endorsed a robotic rescue mission to Hubble that could cost taxpayers as much as $1.6 billion.
How much of that cheering resulted from a love of the telescope, and how much from a love of their Hubble-related jobs, wasn’t clear.
But O’Keefe’s retreat in the face of the save-the-Hubble campaign is nothing to applaud. It demonstrates how susceptible the agency remains to political pressures and diversions.
And according to reports, serious questions remain about whether a robot can do the necessary repairs, as well as whether a rescue mission can get off the ground in time to prevent Hubble from tumbling out of control.
“Everybody says, ‘We want to save the Hubble,’” O’Keefe recently said during a media interview. “Well, let’s go save the Hubble.” But not “everybody” has been saying we should save the Hubble (and if “everybody” said NASA should jump off a bridge, would it?).
In fact, the loudest cries for a reprieve came from a cadre of scientists who value the telescope as a research tool and have no qualms about spending a few billion dollars of other people’s money to keep their eye to the sky flying. And the squeaky wheels again are getting the grease.