A Reprieve For Hubble?

The Hubble Space Telescope is shown following its release from the space shuttle Discovery Wednesday, Feb. 19, 1997.
The clamor over a plan to abandon the Hubble Space Telescope — and along with it, the most striking images of the universe the world has ever seen — has been so loud that NASA's chief says the decision will be reviewed.

The pleas included letters from Sen. Barbara Mikulski and a joint letter from all members of Congress from Maryland, where the orbiting platform's operations are based.

Hubble's fate has also become a cause for amateur and professional astronomers worldwide, and e-mails have poured in to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which coordinates the use of Hubble's instruments.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said in a letter to Mikulski that Adm. Hal Gehman, chairman of the board that investigated the Columbia shuttle breakup last year, will "review the (Hubble) matter and offer his unique perspective." Mikulski released a copy of the letter Thursday.

O'Keefe had defended his decision earlier this month to cancel all space shuttle missions to the Hubble, which has revolutionized the study of astronomy with its striking images of the universe. He had cited the risk to the astronauts on a Hubble mission and President George W. Bush's plans to send humans to the moon, Mars and beyond as the reason for NASA's change of focus.

The reaction from the Hubble's fans was immediate and massive.

"It's been overwhelming. My e-mail is overflowing," said Steve Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute.

"Every day, we've had offers of ideas, political support and even money. Every day, I get people who want to know how they can contribute to keeping Hubble alive."

Web pages have also been set up dedicated to saving the floating space telescope.

Mikulski, the ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee that that oversees NASA's budget, had asked for a review of the decision.

"My view is when someone is told they need major surgery, any prudent person would get a second opinion," Mikulski said. "That's what I told Administrator O'Keefe and that's what he has agreed to do. Hubble has made so many extraordinary contributions to science, exploration and discovery. We cannot prematurely terminate the last servicing mission without a rigorous review."

NASA spokesman Robert Mirelson said O'Keefe has not changed his decision but asked Gehman to give "his view on basically all the questions on the table," including safety, scheduling and the recommendations of the Columbia board.

Maryland's congressional delegation also sent a letter to O'Keefe on Tuesday urging him to reconsider.

"The scientific returns we have received from Hubble's service thus far have exceeded our expectations. ... We believe that NASA should make every possible effort to retain this proven window on the universe," the letter said.

Without the servicing mission, which had been planned for 2006, the orbiting telescope is expected to stop working several years before its scheduled 2010 retirement.