Saturday, January 22, 2005

Hubble, Hubble, toil and trouble.

In a decision that is sure to alienate space activists, astronomers, and members of Congress, and to confuse members of the public, the Bush Administration has bitten the bullet and de-funded any mission to save the Hubble. Space.com's story (linked in the title above) suggests the move was made by the Administration as "an opening gambit in the annual struggle that goes on every budget year, fully expecting that Congress will add money to the agency's budget over the course of the year to pay for a mission that has strong public support."

The Hubble question ought to involve deciding how much is the science that Hubble provides really worth, and how can that science be provided for that cost. Is it better to repair the Hubble? Is it better to replace the Hubble with a new space telescope? Are land-based telescopes good enough now that a space-based telescope is no longer needed?

But the issue won't be decided that simply because it's not really a science issue or a space issue, it's a political issue that is used by special interests to advance their own agendas.

For instance, astronomers unanimously want to save the Hubble. Their position is driven by their own special interest because they get to use the Hubble. Never are they asked whether the science is worth the cost, how much must we spend and for how long to keep this telescope flying, and what they would do if the Hubble is lost. Surely astronomy won't stop in place once the last Hubble gyro freezes.

Space activists have hijacked this issue and taken the position that astronauts should service the telescope. Their motivation for this position is to prove two points, one positive and one negative. The positive point is that humans can fix the telescope better then robots can. Their negative point is to prove that the American space program is not paralyzed by fear. But neither point needs proving. First, NASA has already sent humans to service Hubble in the past so we know that astronauts can do it. Second, whatever anyone may think of NASA and the Space Exploration Initiative, the fact remains that astronauts continue to staff the International Space Station, progress continues towards returning the shuttle to flight, and planning to send humans back to the moon is beginning There seems to have been no thought given to whether spending the millions of dollars that would be needed to service the Hubble might not be better spent on some other human mission. For instance, in the case of the Mars Society's reason for being, sending humans to Mars.

Members of Congress will respond to the issue the way they respond to any issue by acting politically and by protecting their special interests.

In the end, whatever is done to Hubble likely won't be done because it's the most sensible thing to do. It'll be done because the politics support it. Perhaps there's no way around this fact. We went to the moon to prove that capitalism was better than communism not because of any intrinsic worth in going there. But one has to wonder whether this is any way to run a space program.

-tdr

Comments:
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