Sunday, May 02, 2004

The campaign to save the Hubble just got silly today when the comic Stone Soup entered the fray.

A few days after Bush announced his plans for a return to the Moon and a venture to Mars, NASA announced that Shuttle flights to service the Hubble would be cancelled. Because of the timing it was widely reported that the two were connected. This is not true. The decision to abandon the Hubble had already been made based on several considerations. These include:

Other Commitments, With only three shuttles left and a possible delay of two years or more between the Columbia disaster and any future shuttle missions, NASA will need to devote every launch through 2010 to supplying the International Space Station. That assumes an aggressive launch schedule. If they fall behind then it will take until 2011 or 2012. There is no room for other missions. Even if there was, the earliest one could be launched would be 2007 which might be too late anyway.

Safety. The Shuttle cannot be safely launched. Some pieces of foam will always fall off. If the heat shielding is damaged on a flight to the International Space Station then the astronauts can take shelter until a rescue mission can collect them. Because the Hubble is in a different orbit, twice as far from the Earth, no such option is available on a Hubble mission. If the shuttle is damaged on lift-off the crew will die. This violates NASA's new safety standards.

NASA is exploring the possibility of using robots to do maintenance so the Hubble has not been completely written off.

The troubling thing about this is the anti-Bush overtones of the Save the Hubble campaign. Most remarks including the one in Stone Soup think of the Hubble and Mars as an either/or proposition with Hubble winning. After all, how could an idiot like Bush make the right decision about NASA?

Lost in all of this uproar are the lessons of the two shuttle disasters. Both were lost because safety considerations were ignored because of political pressure. Here we are again. We know that a mission to save the Hubble is risky, far riskier than we believed on previous missions. Never the less, NASA is being asked to ignore this and save the Hubble anyway so that we can continue to have pretty pictures from space with no interruption.

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