I attended a speech by NASA Director Sean O’Keefe at the Denver meeting of the American Astronomical Society. He lightly touched on many encouraging topics in regards to NASA’s role in empowering space-based astronomy. But most of his talk was spent defending his decision to cancel the upcoming servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). In a nutshell, this dooms Hubble to die an early death.
His argument is basically that a mission to Hubble is sufficiently different from missions to the International Space Station (ISS) that it would take too long and too much money to prepare for and execute. He has said that NASA will adopt every recommendation by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). This means that there must be repair and rescue contingency plans, including having a second space shuttle on the ground ready to launch.
Besides this intellectual argument he also very much played an emotional card. When NASA fucks up people die and everyone pays attention. I can only imagine how difficult it is to look in the eye of a kid whose mom or dad isn’t coming home from work ever again. Even so, O’Keefe maintains that he is not risk adverse. He says being diligent is different from being risk adverse.
These are not irrational arguments. There is one primary issue that O’Keefe’s position necessitates: Is HST worth it? This is the whole issue. Is HST worth the chance that people die working on the project. Is it worth the dollars, time and effort necessary to do the work. The astronauts have said they’ll do the mission. Astronauts know better than anybody the risks involved in manned spaceflight. The HST is the single most revolutionary scientific instrument in history. Furthermore, the HST has capabilities that no other planned space telescope has for the next 20 years (and probably much longer than that). Almost every astronomer in the world agrees that the HST should be a priority for the foreseeable future.
A secondary question is: should NASA implement every recommendation of the CAIB? I feel the answer is no. It should not be required that every possible safety is in place for every single mission. We should weigh the risks on a case by case basis. There will always be risk but we can’t become paralyzed by it.
The cancelled HST servicing mission is already planned and ready to go. If they outfit it with the most important subset of the CAIB’s recommendation, it will be safer than any previous shuttle flight. The Hubble is worth it. It has fantastically successful capabilities. Save the Hubble.