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May. 25 2009 - 11:24 pm | 264 views | 3 recommendations | 25 comments

The Hubble Constant: High Interest

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The Ten Billion Dollar Man - Last Shuttle-eye view of Hubble.

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.

250px-hubble_space_telescope_first_servicing_during_sts-61

Astronaut Story Musgrave fixing Hubble on STS-61.

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.

Dave Leckrone

Dave Leckrone

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.

Ed Weiler

Ed Weiler

“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.

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The James Webb Space Telescope

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.

Orion Capsule

Orion Capsule

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.

John "Hubble Hugger" Grunsfeld

John "Hubble Hugger" Grunsfeld

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.

"The Pillars of Creation"

"The Pillars of Creation"

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?


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  1. collapse expand

    About a year or so ago, Stephen Hawking said ‘humanity must embrace space exploration, if only to ensure its long-term survival.’ That being said, I think the Constellation program is pretty amazing, and should definitely be a great “new lifeline” for NASA. I’m really surprised people don’t seem to be too excited about Constellation. I mean, we’re going back to the Moon and onto Mars!! How is that not exciting? For years I’ve heard people say we should go back to the Moon, or explore Mars, and now that we’re finally going to do it, no one wants to get on board. Is it because it’s too expensive? If you look at the numbers, you’ll realize that NASA’s 2007 budget accounted for 0.58% of the $2.784 trillion federal budget. Once again, that is less than 1 percent of the federal budget. Hmmm…I think America might be able to handle that. Miles, you actually said it best in one of your articles a few months ago when you mentioned India, a country where people live off of two dollars a day and can still afford a space program, and we can’t? You also said, ‘this would be a good time to remind people that when they need some tech support, they are likely talking to a smart, ambitious, young person in Bangalore – not Baltimore.’

    Anyway, when thinking about the future of NASA, I think people should take Stephen Hawking’s ‘humanity must embrace space exploration, if only to ensure its long-term survival’ quote a little more seriously.
    Eventually we’re going to have to get off this planet. There are a million reasons for this, the most simple being that eventually we’re going to run out of resources here on Earth. Everyone should know this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. I’ve always hoped people in future generations would look back on the grumpy, money obsessed people of the 20th and 21st centuries and thank us for kicking off a program that helped get humans off Earth and into the galaxy. I thank my Dad’s generation for Apollo. Heck, I even find myself thanking Copernicus and Galileo, because without them we’d be in really bad shape! But since no one wants to leave the planet, and would rather save 0.58 percent of the federal budget, I guess I’ll have to keep watching Star Trek, instead of actually being able to explore new worlds, and creating new opportunities for the human race. Hubble has expanded our knowledge and understanding of the Universe, but it’s time we got our hands dirty. Let’s go exploring. If you don’t find Constellation exciting, check your pulse.

  2. collapse expand

    I was born around the dawn of the space age, and was brought up on Apollo, Star Trek, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I got in this business seeing the human expansion into space as being inevitable and imminent. Now I’m not so sure.

    Today’s generation is being brought up to appreciate, live in, even make money in virtual worlds. We no longer need to send humans to the bottom of the ocean to explore. The military is saying that the F-22 and F-35 will be the last jet fighters with people in them. For decades we have all been living vicariously through our televisions. Now we can participate through our interconnected computers.

    So will there still be a point in physically going into space? Yes, there will always be the thrill ride. But will we need to go in order to do science? To mine resources? To build assets in space? I don’t think so. Our robots keep getting better and better, while the humans stay the same. I can see where this is heading.

    There is still the use of human space travel as a form of political muscle flexing, but does that only work on us old folk who are still running those governments? What happens when the younger folk get in power — the ones who don’t follow the shuttle, but do follow the Mars rovers, or more likely, their friends on Twitter? How will we flex our muscles then?

    In the long run, the very long run, I’m sure that getting mass and people into space will continue to get cheaper, driven by suborbital, then orbital, then lunar tourism. But why would it go beyond tourism? That infrastructure would enable the occasional science outpost, much like we have in Antarctica. But only to service the observatories and robots.

    In fact, Antarctica is a great example. We don’t see human colonization of Antarctica, despite unlimited oxygen, water ice, and other crucial resources. Antarctica is limited to scientists, tourists, and penguins. The Moon I’m afraid will be the same (sans penguins).

    The human expansion into space may eventually happen, but on a much, much longer time scale than we imagined when the future was Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey. As they say, the future just isn’t what it used to be.

  3. collapse expand

    Wow, Miles. Incredible piece full of some of my fondest memories from the past 30 odd years. You made me realize how much I had personally invested in being a Space Cadet.You also made me truly sad.

    Seeing all of this come to an end makes me face a reality I have avoided facing; the end of Hubble – the end of the shuttle. Sadly.I feel that once they are gone,they will be lost forever. As you said, we Space Cadets alone cannot convince Washington to keep them going. I am trepidacious about where NASA goes from here, but I try to remain somewhat hopeful. It does seem that ‘the good old days’ have come to an end, however. To me its tragic.

    Thanks though, for stating so eloquently what many of us feel. Glad I am not the only one to get ‘misty’ over it. Truthfully, I downright cried. May as well call it what it is.

  4. collapse expand

    Constellation is an exciting program and the Ares V will be capable of putting payloads upwards to L3 and could also be human rated which would mean the possibility of servicing missions. It’s early enough in the design phase where this capability could be designed into it IF enough folks from the right places make a loud enough noise.

  5. collapse expand

    A few thoughts about Hubble (and the future of space telescopes):

    1) From what I’ve read, there are ground-based telescopes with the capabilities of Hubble. Granted they have to use methods like adaptive optics to achieve those results, but that’s using technology to your benefit.

    2) Robotic spacecraft (including space telescopes) are built to be pretty resilient/redundant. When they’re engineered very well, they can far exceed our expectations (the MERs and Voyagers, for example). I’m still scratching my head on the relatively short lives of some of the other Great Telescopes. Budget constraints?

    3) There are some interesting developments to keep an eye on. One is the Common Spacecraft Bus, which is being used by the LCROSS mission and by some teams outside NASA as well. This approach was used with great success with the EOS Common Bus for AQUA, AURA, etc. Why reinvent the wheel when you have a good design that works? We don’t design a new rocket from scratch each time we deliver a payload, do we? (Also, keep an eye on those Google Lunar X PRIZE teams.)

    4) I’m hoping that we see several different configurations/modules for Ares I and Ares V. Apollo held so much promise and was cut down in her youth (note that I did not say prime). There were even some pretty inventive variations on Gemini that were put on paper but never flown. Then again, no bucks, no Buck Rogers.

    Will I miss Hubble? Yes. Will I shed a tear when Spirit and Oppy call it quits? You betcha. Am I angry that our government has now doled out more in bailout money than NASA’s entire budget? You better believe I am. I for one am raising a stink – and so should you.

  6. collapse expand

    With all due respect to Ed Weiler, who is not without justification for being wary about coupling science goals to human space flight, his comment that “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” isn’t quite right. Four years ago the Single Aperture Far Infrared (SAFIR) observatory concept was developed with a few hundred $K of NASA funding under the Vision Missions line. This JWST-like astronomy mission concept didn’t really require human servicing, but the advocates ended up concluding that with such servicing, science output would benefit tremendously. Now, that didn’t mean servicing was cheap, because of course the cost of human servicing wasn’t known. It still isn’t known.

    The NRC just produced a new report — “Launching Science” — which looked into the promise of the Constellation system for construction and servicing of science facilities in free space. That report concluded that there were real opportunities but that NASA needed to do a value study. That’s exactly right, and neither SMD (the Science Directorate) nor ESMD (the Exploration Directorate that is building Constellation) has ever made careful plans to do so.

    Let’s hope that as the completion of ISS and HST mark the retirement of our efforts to build and service things in space, we give some thought to the hard-won capability we’re losing.

  7. collapse expand

    So Ed Weiler says that “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”? With all due respect to Ed, who has some justification for being averse to bonding science with human space flight, that isn’t true. Many scientists had such a wild idea that the Single Aperture Far Infrared (SAFIR) telescope might lend itself to servicing by humans. Such a wild idea that NASA gave the team Vision Mission study money five years ago to look at the idea. What the team found was that although such servicing wasn’t absolutely necessary for this huge telescope, it would be hugely enabling scientifically, though at that pre-ESAS time the cost was very uncertain. It still is very uncertain. Therein lies the problem.

    The NRC “Launching Science” report, just released, considered ways that Constellation could be used to do science not on the surface of the Moon. Servicing of free-space telescopes was identified as a major opportunity, though the cost value needed assessment. The NRC panel specifically recommended that NASA consider and evaluate this opportunity. There is no sign that NASA wants to budget for such a task — either SMD or ESMD.

    So as the servicing effort on HST comes to a close, and construction of ISS winds down, we might be thinking about the hard-won expertise on in-space operations that we’re essentially giving up as we aim our feet and our flagpoles at the lunar surface.

  8. collapse expand

    It is hard to believe that we can do things like service the Hubble Telescope, and hard to believe that we could abandon that capability. Why are no spacecraft (except for ISS) designed for on orbit servicing? Because it is too hard to schedule a visit to service them. Our history of Skylab, Solar Maximum Mission, Hubble, etc show us that if we are willing to spend the money to enable servicing, that we get more return.

    Ground based systems (telescopes, power stations, dams, etc) are designed for maintenance – but they are easier to reach!

    So access to space creates the lack of perceived need to access space – for servicing. Putting telescopes at a LaGrangian point has it’s advantages but that also introduces many more failure modes (can’t get there, can’t maintain station, etc). Cost, complexity, and risk go up.

    It is difficult seeing the Administration agreeing to invest 12 billion in a nice-to-have high speed rail system from LA to San Francisco. Sure that would be cool. But it will cost at least 40 billion – our first investment obligates us to the whole amount. And high speed rail will just be a money drain like Amtrak is now – just that it will operate at a bigger loss. But we gotta have one since the Europeans and Japanese and Chinese all have one. If high speed rail was gonna be a money maker the railroad companies would build it.

    And that is one example of the Administration willing to lavish money on a “signature” program – but not one that has returned results for years, one that will be a financial drain for decades.

    Sigh.

    • collapse expand

      I agree except for your point on high speed rail. If we do not start now breaking the tyranny of unsustainable road-building and resulting sprawl, the vicissitudes of the space program will be the least of our worries.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        High speed rail was but an example – the Federal deficit was obscene at 400 billion but is now beyond that, about 1.8 trillion. Supposedly it will decline next year. But so many of the projects funded by it are multi year construction projects! Do we wish to build a high speed rail that goes 1/4 of the way from LA to San Fran? Do we want to build bridges that go half way across a river? Enormous deficit spending is a direct threat to every useful program – and high speed rail is just an example. How can we financially support allies when we will struggle to pay for the interest payments on our debt?
        I also like mass transit and am an enthusiastic supporter of MetroRail here in Houston. But at least MetroRail makes economic sense, unlike many of the programs being paid for by deficit spending.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  9. collapse expand

    Good stuff. A little more than halfway in — I’ll get into it more later, after I wash dishes and make some sort of supper.

    Just one thing that jumped out: “Now this kind of thing simply does not happen at a NASA briefing.”

    Actually, Miles, it does. Not super-often, but when it does, we notice. I have a favorite I often use as a tagline, something Mike Griffin said about not being able to understand why people aren’t excited about what’s going on in space. And telling them to just go watch Desperate Housewives, then. I appreciated that, because it was genuine and unscripted, and because *that’s how I feel.* “What is WRONG with you people? Wake UP!” is a common refrain around here.

    Whenever these people (technically government bureaucrats, remember) say something personal and genuine, perhaps impolitic — it makes my day.

    “I can explain it for you. I can’t understand it for you.” ;-)

  10. collapse expand

    for some reason, modern NASA types haven’t read the nice books by wiley ley. great images of huge rocketships, of spacestations that looked like donuts, rotating to create gravity for those on board. I figure somewhere, somehow, sometime people forgot the images of a Pan Am space shuttle docking with a real international space station. (to the music of “on the beautiful blue danube”)

    I am ashamed of modern NASA and those behind it. Better not to do anything in space if you can’t do it right. Save up the money for something really worthwhile…not junk. Apollo on steroids? YUCK.

    I sure hope the boys at AREA 51 have worked up a real neato spaceship.

  11. collapse expand

    Scientists look at the manned spaceflight budget and wet their pants thinking about what wonderful robot spacecraft they could buy if they had that much money.

  12. collapse expand

    This piece is linked with appreciation in my long love letter to the Hubble (link love!) on Natural History Magazine’s blog, facTotem.

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    I am a 26-year broadcast news veteran - with nearly 17 years as CNN’s science, aerospace, technology and environment correspondent. I am an active pilot, airplane owner and a lover of all things that fly. I was slated to be the first journalist to fly on the space shuttle before the Columbia accident ended that dream. I am based in New York City - married with two teenagers and two dogs.

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