Repairing Hubble: Astronauts or Robots

Since the loss of the Space Shuttle in 2003, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has grounded all shuttle operations indefinitely until space flight can be deemed safe enough to continue normal operations. The shuttle Columbia disaster upon reentry of the Earth’s atmosphere has undoubtedly shaken the space industry of the United States, not to mention all space faring nations on the face of the planet. An independent investigation requested by the United States Congress has since commissioned the National Research Council to analyze possible servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope. The National Research Council recommended servicing Hubble as soon as possible and encouraged a Shuttle servicing mission as the most feasible means of servicing Hubble. Despite recommendations to service Hubble by means of human expertise, NASA has argued that the safety of their astronauts is the number one priority for the nation and have thus been wading their feet in the possibility of a robotic servicing mission as Hubble’s view continues to fade into darkness.

Since John F. Kennedy embarked our nation on the adventure of exploring space, the United States has landed on the moon, maintains the planets only International Space Station, and placed into orbit the most famed telescope ever created…Hubble. On January 24, 2004, President George W. Bush announced a prestigious vision for the United States’ civil space program “upon exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond.” Throughout the modern era, United States’ public and national policy has been inclusive of the imperative to explore space. Exploration of space will undoubtedly be hindered without an ongoing human presence in space. The challenge of repairing the Hubble Space Telescope will offer the necessary continuation of this goal.

Hubble has captured the imagination of the nation. Since the early 1920s, astronomers have dreamed of a telescope in space that would see the cosmos at wavelengths unfiltered by Earth’s atmosphere. That dream became a reality on April 25, 1990, when the shuttle Discovery launched Hubble into orbit. Since that time, Hubble has provided human imagination and scientific insight with extraordinary images and has changed our understanding of the universe. With the cancellation of manned shuttle servicing missions, age, gravity, and wear will take their toll on Hubble’s orbit and components. Eventually, the telescope’s orbit will degrade, and Hubble will fall to Earth.

The most famous, and in some ways the most productive telescope ever built, Hubble has helped reshape and extend our views of the physical universe, and thus must be saved. There is no other option than to service Hubble in the most productive way possible: sending a space shuttle servicing mission to continue a job historically performed by human hands. The estimated cost of a robotic servicing mission to Hubble is in the $2 billion range. In addition, the resources needed to pursue such a mission put a higher limit on its current price tag. While a human servicing mission appears riskier in terms of human life, it is more cost efficient and would require less time than a robotic servicing mission, not to mention the fact that astronauts assume the full risk accompanying their profession.

The President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy outlines an ultimate goal of sending humans beyond the reaches of the International Space Station to the Moon and Mars. If space policy does not include using humans as a valuable tool for such missions as servicing Hubble, the United States will not be left with a trained staff of astronauts or the accompanying insitu knowledge base when the time arises for humans to perform technical operations at even further distances from Earth. There is no question as to whether or not Hubble should be serviced, just as it is not debatable the most efficient and cost productive method by which to service Hubble should remain as it always has…a human task.

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