The Hubble Constant: High Interest
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Hubble Repair Missions. After all, I cut my teeth on the space beat covering the legendary STS-61 mission in December 1993 – the first, the most dramatic – and certainly the most important – of the five astronaut telescope calls now inscribed in the space history books.
So I must confess I am a bit wistful – even a little misty – now that it is all over. We will no longer have the good fortune to witness the live drama of human beings pushing the envelope of impossibility to improve a machine that pushes the boundaries of our understanding of the universe.
Over the years, sixteen Mr. Starwrenches finessed, improvised – and sometimes used brute force – to fix what ailed Hubble – or make it better. It was Reality TV for the Space Cadet Nation.
Today old man Hubble embarks on its final scientific chapter much better than new – as if he were The Ten Billion Dollar Man.
Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was before. Better. Stronger. Faster.
But if I am getting all blubbery over this space bookend, you can only imagine what it must be like for Dave Leckrone – a Hubbler for 33 years now – the last 16 of them as the Project Scientist.
Last week, he startled into consciousness the normally somnolent media assemblage at your typical NASA news briefing by saying something that was (a) candid, honest and heartfelt (b) off the talking points (way off), and thus, (c) newsworthy.
“It just makes me want to cry to think that this is the end of it,” Leckrone said. “There is no person out there, there is no leadership out there, there is no vision out there to pick up the baton that we’re about to hand off and carry it forward.” [Spaceflightnow.com has the salient question and response isolated here.]
Now this kind of thing simply does not happen at a NASA briefing. But Leckrone is retiring on October 1 and rightly feels he has nothing to lose – and maybe something to gain – by venting at this stage of his career.
He was quickly smacked down by his boss, colleague and frienemy Ed Weiler – who rules the Kingdom of Science at NASA Headquarters.
“There are no other satellites up there to service other than Hubble…why is that?” Weiler asked rhetorically when we spoke on the phone the other day as he waited on the wrong coast for Atlantis to come home.
“You gotta realize the guy (Leckrone) is coming from a very, very narrow focus,” said Weiler. “(Hubble) is the grandest, most wonderful Redwood tree in my forest, but I have to worry about the whole forest of science missions.”
And Weiler claims in his ten year stint as NASA’s top science manager (“Code S”), not a single scientist with a wild idea for a mission has asked that it be designed to be serviced by astronauts.
The main argument here is over the Benjamins (isn’t it always?). Hubble has cost the taxpayers about ten billion non-inflation adjusted dollars since the beginning. That is a big number to be sure. Hubble’s successor – the James Webb Space Telescope slated to launch in 2014 – carries a $4.5 billion price tag – which, when adjusted for inflation, is equivalent to our $1.5 billion down payment on the Hubble program three decades ago.
Webb is not designed for astronaut servicing – it is headed a million miles out into the space – to an orbital sweet spot in our solar system called a Lagrangian Point - out of human reach with any spacecraft currently available or on the drawing boards.
Webb is not going to be cheap – but it will certainly be cheaper than Hubble. Or will it?
I also reached out to Dave Leckrone – he too was cooling his heels in Florida – presumably making separate dinner plans than his boss. Leckrone reminds us when you add in the five astronaut servicing missions – and subtract for the flawed, blurry mirror that hobbled Hubble at the outset, you could make a good case that there have now been three distinct Hubble Space Telescopes.
I realize the Blue Light doesn’t exactly start flashing there, but that does change the amortization and depreciation schedules significantly doesn’t it? So could the Hubble model of space astronomy actually be cheaper? Well no one can say for sure.
“No one has ever commissioned a proper, academically rigorous study of that cost trade,” said Leckrone. So whenever you see (Weiler) saying that (astronaut servicing) is more expensive, he is saying it on intuition.”
The agency is conducting a $20 million study to get definitive answer, but that seems like a waste of money because the question is utterly moot given what lies ahead once the shuttles are pickled and chalked on museum floors.
The successor to the shuttle -the Apollo-like Orion Capsule - is not designed for this kind of work at all. It doesn’t even have an airlock or a robot arm. It is nothing more – or less – than a (hopefully) reliable, safer taxi to space for humans…not that there’s anything wrong with that. It is just not a space work platform like the shuttle.
Still, as part of Leckrone’s public rebuke, the NASA PR machine churned out this statement from spokesman Grey Hautaluoma: “There is nothing about the (Orion) architecture that would preclude satellite rescue work.”
True in the narrowest parsing of the word, I suppose. But the Space Cadet Nation knows the real score here.
So will there ever be another Hubble? As he unfailingly does, Ed Weiler cut to the chase: “Probably not, because there won’t be a shuttle.”
Indeed, Hubble and Shuttle are inextricably linked – both conceived and gestated with each other in mind in the seventies.
“They are like two kids growing up in the same family,” says Weiler. “They impacted each other’s designs.”
In fact, Hubble’s mirror is 2.4 meters in diameter so that it could fit in the Shuttle cargo bay – and it flies in Shuttle striking distance (low earth orbit) even though that is by no means the ideal place to park a space telescope (half the time, Mother Earth proves to Hubble she would be a better door than a window).
So what happens now that we don’t have Hubble to tinker with? Leckrone worries we will eventually forget all that we have learned during the Hubble years – through tears, sweat and spherical aberration.
“It leaves us in the incredible position of losing amazing capabilities we once had and not being able to recover those capabilities in our lifetimes,” he told me.
Sounds grim, but truth be told, astronauts are still proving their spacewalking mettle on the space station – you just don’t hear about it in the mainstream media very much. Sadly, most Americans do not fully appreciate the amazing accomplishment that is the International Space Station. They overlook its incremental role in pushing out the frontier and see it more like a big public works project. Whether or not the widget attaches to the gizmo “nominally” just isn’t enough to sell the program outside the Space Cadet Nation.
But Hubble literally has a wider field and thus it fires synapses in both hemispheres of our brains. The beauty and wonder of its images appeal to poets as much as engineers – and the extravehicular repair work might as well be performance art.
That is one thing that the scientists may be overlooking as they green-eyeshade the future of man and/or machine in space. Everyday people have connected with this shiny, silver telescope in ways that transcend Hubble’s stack of peer-reviewed discoveries that have sparked the biggest revolution in astronomy this side of Galileo.
Maybe it is the hard-luck comeback, sad-sack to superstar tale…maybe it is the stunning, ethereal images from the (now retired) Wide Field and Planetary Camera-2 (see the greatest hits on Universe Today)…or maybe, just maybe, it’s those spacewalks…those high-tech, high-drama ballets in the void. Man meeting machine in the harshest environment of all.
Leckrone’s conclusion: “the astronomical community has not been enamored of this because they had this prejudice that space shuttles and (human) spaceflight are expensive and it is not something they want to get involved in.”
But let’s not forget that first Hubble servicing mission was among the most important missions in the history of the space program – no matter which side of the flow chart you report to. NASA was a laughingstock, Congress was poised to stop the Space Station before it was built – and no one was certain how much practical building an astronaut could do in space anyway. It is not an understatement to say that stunningly successful mission saved Hubble, the Space Station, and for that matter, the space program as we know it.
Fixing Hubble saved NASA and made a lot of people smile and think maybe humans really do belong in space after all. So now that this chapter is closed, who or what is the agency’s new lifeline to a blasé, apathetic public?