I received an email from an astronomer pointing out an article in today’s Gray Lady that says a Hubble mission might be as safe, or safer, than an ISS mission. I’ve omitted the emailer’s name in case there’s any political sensitivity.
While I don’t subscribe to Josh Marshall’s hoax theory about NASA’s new focus, I do believe that the NASA hierarchy has been less than truthful concerning changes to its mission goals. When Sen. Barbara Mikulski called Sean O’Keefe concerning the cancellation of shuttle missions to Hubble, he told her that the decision was a combination of money and safety concerns. Once he heard from her that money might not be a problem, his message changed to that of safety alone. Indeed, Jon Grunsfeld’s first comments about the mission cancellation also mentioned money, but safety has now become the overriding arguement, as it is harder to dispute from the outside.
As an astronomer, I’m concerned about the future of basic astronomical research under the new NASA. NASA has quietly put off for at least a year, perhaps more, funding for its MIDEX and SPEX smaller space astronomical instrument missions and cut back funding for approved programs, and O’Keefe’s press conference about the budget was not friendly to basic science (unless you are studying the science of weightlessness on the human body) or space astronomy. Now, this is NASA’s perogative — as my husband says, none of the “A”s in NASA stand for “astronomy” — but I can’t help but think that the broader public might not be concerned about the decline of the one science everyone seems to find compelling and approachable. And it was Bush’s father who made a similar announcement about big goals for the US space program, which then petered out into nothing. It doesn’t take political animus to fear that current path could lead to little progress.
Anyway, I emailed you because I haven’t seen much sign that, outside of those of us who are directly affected, people have appreciated how much the new NASA focus is pulling money away from space science instrumentation and research. I’d like to see some discussion on this issue.
Well, I’m on record as believing that we ought to go ahead with the flight, and safety shouldn’t even be an issue, but that’s not politically correct these days. But I do believe that’s the primary driver for the decision, and don’t think that O’Keefe is being in any way disingenuous–at least I have no reason right now to think so. Risk assessments are always judgement calls, and while one engineer’s analysis may be perfectly valid, it’s always possible to find others who disagree, and NASA is erring on the side of caution right now, in response to the Gehman Commission and a reaction (and probably overreaction) to what happened a year ago.
However, I think that it’s a little too early to tell whether or not the new initiative will be good, or bad, for space science and astronomy in general. People are inferring from the fact that the Hubble decision was announced after the president’s speech that it was somehow a result of it. It wasn’t. They were both a result of the same root cause–last year’s loss of Columbia.
Actually, history indicates that we have the most vibrant space science program when we have a vibrant manned program as well (though it’s not clear whether that will be the case for deep-space astronomy). For example, as far as I know, Webb remains on track.
But what fans of space telescopes should really be doing is cheering on people working to reduce costs (i.e., not NASA), because that’s going to make it affordable for universities to put up their own suites of multi-mirror space telescopes. And if we really do set up a lunar base, farside will make a great place for a radiotelescope, blocked from the noisy earth.