Servicing Mission 4 Cancelled
Friday, January 16, 2004:
O'Keefe called a meeting of the "Hubble Team" on Friday, January 16. We got the word 24 hours in advance. The meeting started at 11:30 am at Goddard Space Flight Center in the Hubble conference room above the main bay (Building 7, Room 200 B/C) and ended at 1:00 pm. There were approximately 100 people in attendance, mostly from Goddard. Notable representatives included:
Sean O'Keefe, John Grunsfeld, Ed Weiler, Anne Kinney, Eric Smith, Jennifer Wiseman (HQ)
Steve Beckwith, Mike Hauser, Rodger Doxsey, Antonella Nota, Ian Griffin (STScI)
Preston Burch, Dave Scheve, Dave Leckrone, Frank Ceppolina, Mal Niedner (GSFC)
+ a mix of around 100 people from Goddard and the contractors (I presume)
NASA Administrator, Sean O'Keefe, delivered the news that he had decided to drop any shuttle servicing missions to Hubble in the return to flight, including SM4, and he wanted to tell us all in person about the decision. He said the decision was his alone. It was not the recommendation of the Associate Administrator for Space Science, Ed Weiler, or the astronaut office, and he said it was not a decision based on one factor or a single, compelling argument. His decision was a very close call (he said "razor thin" or something similar) and based on the weight of the arguments for and against Hubble servicing.
He spoke for about 45 minutes without any obvious notes, and he touched a large number of detailed decision factors, not all of which I will reproduce here. It was my impression from his presentation that he had, indeed, thought deeply about the reasons, giving him the ability to speak impromptu for so long and retain so many details. He said several times that money was not a factor in the decision, and it was not about safety alone. Clearly, both money and safety were considerations.
My distillation of the reasoning boils down to the following logic:
- O'Keefe has personally accepted the CAIB recommendations for shuttle return to flight. NASA will not fly shuttles without implementing every one of the CAIB recommendations as a minimum.
- Flights to the International Space Station (ISS) required NASA to implement a series of changes to the shuttle. NASA is committed to closing out the ISS work by 2010, thus it is committed to do that work.
- Hubble is the only target not in an ISS orbit which NASA considers important enough to study for a non-ISS flight.
- Non-ISS flights require additional developments for shuttles to fly:
- Ability to inspect the entire shuttle on orbit.
- Ability to repair the shuttle on orbit for a certain set of failures
- Some kind of safe-haven or rescue capability in case of catastrophic failures that cannot be repaired on orbit. My recollection about this requirement is hazy, and I rely on Mike Hauser's memory on this point; it was not clear to me that this last capability is required or simply desirable. I will have to reread CAIB.
- Implementation of the additional items in (4) would have to be made on a one-use basis for SM4 alone. They would never be used again, and NASA would learn nothing from their development, vis-a-vis heritage for future space missions.
- Optical astronomers have access to more facilities than just Hubble: he mentioned ground-based telescopes with adaptive optics and other assets in orbit such as Chandra and Spitzer. Thus, a gap between HST and JWST would not kill optical astronomy.
- SM4 would only extend the life of HST by a few years. I think he used "3 years" in speech, and in that he is mistaken, but a short period (e.g. 3 years) obviously played a role in his thinking.
- Therefore, he thought the extra effort required to mount a single mission, SM4, was not worth the scientific return. That drove the decision.
He made a number of other useful statements, some in response to questions. I note a few here:
- He recognizes the "Hubble Team" as uniquely talented and needed for NASA's future missions to the moon and beyond. He pledged to ensure that the team had adequate resources to keep it alive and not lose all the best people. There was no specific mention of STScI as part of this team, and it was my impression that the commitment was to Goddard.
- He committed to accelerate JWST as much as physically possible. He said money would not be a limit to JWST construction. The only bottleneck would be manufacturing capability. In a follow up question, he did not commit to a specific amount by which JWST would be accelerated.
- He challenged us to figure out a way to maximize Hubble's scientific lifetime (we could reinterpret to scientific return, since the two may not be equivalent) without a shuttle servicing mission.
- He committed NASA to a robotic servicing mission to de-orbit Hubble safely. No time scale or dollar figure was attached to this statement. (nb: I have begun to wonder about the incremental cost of developing robotic capability to replace batteries, say, compared to the cost of a shuttle flight, and I have pondered if that would be useful for the moon initiative anyway.)
That gives you a synopsis of the meeting sans anecdotes. The mood in the room was decidedly somber.
Both Anne Kinney, Director of Physics and Astronomy, and Ed Weiler took pains to assure us that they had found money to cover SM4 with slips and it was not their recommendation to cancel SM4.
On Monday, I am going to assemble a team at STScI to look at a wide-suite of options to extend Hubble's life. I think we should think positively about ways to use or even service Hubble without the shuttle and see if we cannot find something that would be attractive to NASA and preserve our observatory.