LJUBLJANA, Slovenia— We are living in the greatest age that astronomy has ever seen. New technologies both on the ground and in space have revolutionized our ability to peer into the heavens. Over the last decade, more than a hundred planets orbiting other stars have been discovered; innumerable galaxies, many of them rife with the glittering hatcheries of star formation, have been catalogued; and the Hubble Space Telescope has peered back to within only 400 million years of the Big Bang, producing the deepest look into space and time ever conducted.
As a result, our placement within a stunningly vast universe has become much more clear. Our tiny planet’s fragile surface layer of life is suspended within an exceedingly grand evolutionary process.
Although ground-based instruments are getting much better, with adaptive optics compensating for the atmosphere’s shimmer, the Hubble Space Telescope’s unparalleled ability to peer into deepest space from well above our planet’s thin oxygen envelope makes it by wide consensus the most important instrument in the history of modern astronomy. Among many other wonders, Hubble has shown us dusty proto-planetary discs around emerging stars in the Orion Nebula: solar systems in the process of formation. It’s as though our miraculous national spyglass can peer at the exact epoch depicted in the first sentence of Genesis. Using Hubble, we may in fact have already looked at the earliest prehistory of planetary systems that will one day be capable of supporting intelligent life.
Hubble has also succeeded in doing something astronomers once thought nearly impossible: hooking millions of nonspecialists on their profession. As one film producer told me, “I don’t need organized religion as long as I can look at those Hubble images.” The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has only benefited. According to a recent Science News survey of all science and technology stories published worldwide, Hubble coverage in 2002 comprised a whopping 33 percent of all NASA-related articles.
Despite all this, and despite the fact that with servicing the Hubble could have many more years of productive life left, in January the NASA administrator, Sean O’Keefe, decided to cancel a scheduled shuttle mission to the telescope. The mission would have replaced aging batteries and gyroscopic stabilizers, and installed cutting-edge observational instruments. These expensive devices, which have already been built, would insure that the Hubble would remain astronomy’s leading observatory for the rest of the decade or more; without them the telescope will most likely cease operations by 2007. O’Keefe’s decision was presented as grounded in safety concerns, not budgetary ones.
The resulting outcry in defense of the telescope by astronomers, politicians and the public forced O’Keefe into concessions. Dissident NASA engineers pointed out that a mission to the International Space Station is in many ways more hazardous, not less, than a Hubble trip – essentially demolishing the NASA administrator’s core argument.
One of O’Keefe’s commendable moves was to request that a board of experts at the National Academy of Sciences study the Hubble servicing situation and issue a recommendation. The administrator has also said that NASA may seek a robotic mission to the telescope, a face-saving compromise that would be expensive and most likely incapable of installing Hubble’s new instruments. By contrast, space-walking astronauts could achieve that with relative ease; they’ve already serviced Hubble safely three times.
In a letter to O’Keefe on July 13, the academy board strongly advised NASA not to let the telescope die, and although it didn’t rule a robotic mission out, it stated categorically that “NASA should take no actions that would preclude a space shuttle servicing mission.”
It goes without saying that the space shuttle shouldn’t fly again until NASA has succeeded in making it as safe as possible. At the very least, a second shuttle should always be readied for possible use as a rescue vehicle. But given NASA’s intention to revive the shuttle program in the first place, it’s clearly time to restore planning for a crewed mission to service astronomy’s leading observatory.
Michael Benson is the author of “Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes.”