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Saturday, January 17, 2004

The HELL???

What is THIS SHIT?:

The Hubble Space Telescope will be allowed to degrade and eventually become useless, as NASA changes focus to President Bush's plans to send humans to the moon, Mars and beyond, officials said Friday.

NASA canceled all space shuttle servicing missions to the Hubble, which has revolutionized the study of astronomy with its striking images of the universe.

I wondered about this the other day, when the blogosphere was gushing about Bush's Mars plan. (Frankly I was surprised that all you conservatives had that attitude. Conservatives, as we all know, want to keep their money in the bank, whereas liberals don't like space exploration because "there are so many problems down here on Earth".) Manned planetary exploration is swell. I'm all for it. The problem is, it often takes money away from unmanned missions which yield much more scientific payoff. I don't see that there's any reason this should happen, but in practice that's how it turns out.

Ah, but that's not exactly what's going on:

John Grunsfeld, NASA's chief scientist, said NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe made the decision to cancel the fifth space shuttle service mission to the Hubble when it became clear there was not enough time to conduct it before the shuttle is retired.


The president's plan also called for the space shuttle to be retired by 2010. Virtually all of the shuttle's remaining flights would be used to complete construction of the International Space Station.

There we go! They can't spare a shuttle mission for Hubble because the shuttle's going to be busy building the Space Station before we abandon it (another mistake, but that's another story).

This is despite the fact that the next servicing mission was due to take place in the middle of next year, not after 2010 when the shuttle will be retired. So why can't they spare one lousy shuttle?:

One reason for the cancellation of repairs, Grunsfeld said, was the requirement that a backup space shuttle would have to be primed for launch when a space shuttle was sent to service the Hubble, a requirement set after the Columbia accident. NASA officials decided then that a backup would have to be ready to help any shuttle going anywhere but the International Space Station.

In other words, if the shuttle goes to the ISS, we don't have to have a rescue shuttle ready; but if it goes anywhere else, we do. The Houston Chronicle points out that:

...the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which probed last February's shuttle disaster that killed seven astronauts, said NASA should not fly the remaining shuttles until it figures out how to inspect and repair the spacecraft in orbit.

NASA is working on plans to do that on missions where the shuttle docks at the international space station.

This is the "nail clipper" approach to space flight: we can't let so much as a nail clipper get through. This kind of thinking---only go when it's absolutely safe---is not going to Mars, people. Bank on that.

My sources within the shadowy and secretive gamma ray community are not surprised, as the same sort of thing happened to the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. My source says that NASA just didn't want to spend the money to keep GRO going, but it's kind of hard to imagine that the small, by NASA standards, amount of money required to keep GRO going was the cause. You'll note that the nail clipper effect was the stated reason there, too.

There are those who say that NASA is an engineering organization, not a science organization, and occasionally the engineers forget about the science which is the raison d'etre of their engineering. This is hard for me to believe, but perhaps it's in play here. A while back there was a proposal to put all of space sciences under NASA---many are currently funded by the National Science Foundation. (I thought it should have been the other way around.) This plan was dropped, but we dodged a bullet there.

It's especially hard to believe since we're admittedly gushing money on the Space Station, which we're going to abandon once it's completed. We have to do this because of our international agreements. Hey, I thought Bush was a unilateral cowboy! What gives?

Here's a fun quote which is unintentionally supportive of my thesis:

"This is a sad day," said Grunsfeld, but he said the decision "is the best thing for the space community."

The space community and the science community are different entities, with occasional overlaps. It might be the best thing for the space community, but the astronomical community has just taken a big hit.

It's possible that this decision could be reversed, if enough people were outraged. But that didn't work for the GRO (of course, the GRO was hardly a household name).

In any case, those of you hoping for "My Granddaughter Went to Mars and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt" shirts in your dotage better count on getting airbags for your wheelchairs instead.

More rantage as I think of it.