'Let's Go Save The Hubble'

Sean O'Keefe, who recently took over as head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, testifies before a joint session of House and Senate space panels on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2003. O'Keefe offered assurances that investigators will discover the cause of the accident that killed seven astronauts and that a review board will operate without interference from NASA insiders. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) AP

NASA's chief is urging his Hubble Space Telescope team to press ahead with plans for a robotic repair mission to the aging observatory, saying, "Let's go save the Hubble."

Administrator Sean O'Keefe says he will ask Congress for money to accomplish the job. He estimates it will take about $1 billion to $1.6 billion to develop and launch a robot to make the needed upgrades to keep the popular telescope running and to get it out of orbit once its work is through.

In a meeting with more than 200 Hubble engineers and scientists at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., O'Keefe told them he was encouraged by their progress on coming up with a robotic solution, "actually astonished."

The Baltimore Sun quoted a Goddard scientist as saying that the group in attendance was delighted by the news and cheered several times.

In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel on Monday, O'Keefe said, "Everybody says, 'We want to save the Hubble' — well, let's go save the Hubble."

NASA will ask for more money through a budget amendment, said Susan Hendrix, a spokeswoman at Goddard.

Hendrix stressed that it will be another six months to a year before a final decision is made. "By next summer, they'll know the technology. We just need to go a little bit further to see, because this has never been done before," she said Tuesday.

In January, O'Keefe announced that no more astronauts and space shuttles would be sent to Hubble, in need of new parts if it's to keep working beyond 2007 or 2008. He based his decision on safety concerns that arose out of the Columbia disaster.

NASA was ready to pull the plug on Hubble. But there was a huge outcry over the loss of the telescope responsible for the most dramatic and colorful pictures from space.

An Internet petition was signed by thousands, O'Keefe's e-mail system was clogged with complaints and members of Congress demanded reviews.

Even John Glenn weighed in, saying another servicing mission was necessary "to get every year's value out of that thing." And other astronauts, including those who had worked on Hubble over the years, wrote O'Keefe arguing that the risk was worth taking.

While NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and Spitzer Space Telescope see the universe in X-ray and infrared, respectively, Hubble observes visible light and peeks into the ultraviolet and near-infrared.

The James Webb Space Telescope, set for launch in 2011, will focus on the infrared and outdo Hubble with a mirror more than double its size.

Astronomers have said they would be at a loss if Hubble is abandoned and the Webb is lost in a rocket explosion or has crippling design flaws.
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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