NASA's new Administrator Mike Griffin told reporters today that he informed key members of Congress Thursday evening that he would direct engineers at Goddard Spaceflight center to start preparing for a space shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope on the assumption that one ultimately will go forward.
Griffin's predecessor, Sean O'Keefe, cancelled a planned Hubble mission in January 2004. O'Keefe cited safety concerns in the wake of the shuttle Columbia disaster.
Astronomers, politicians and the public have been up in arms about the cancellation ever since. A review board of experts assembled by O'Keefe recommended a shuttle mission to Hubble be reconsidered, but O'Keefe never budged. He was, however, persuaded to consider a robotic mission to service the telescope, which if it does not get new batteries and gyroscopes will cease to function in the next two to three years.
There is no replacement for Hubble's visible-light acuity even in the serious planning stages.
When Griffin came aboard earlier this month, he promised to reconsider sending astronauts to Hubble, but at the time announced no specific moves in that direction. He also said there would be no robotic effort to upgrade the observatory.
Something eventually must be done. At a minimum, a robotic mission would have to be mounted to attach a device that could safely de-orbit Hubble, otherwise it would make an uncontrolled and potentially dangerous re-entry on its own time.
Griffin said today that a final decision on any possible crewed servicing mission is still pending NASA's successful return to flight with the launch of the shuttle Discovery. However, with that launch now delayed nearly two more months, Griffin said the Goddard team has to get started now to preserve the option of saving Hubble before the popular telescope is scheduled to go dark.
"[But] we're not going to allow Hubble preparations to interfere with return to flight," Griffin said.
Astronomers said earlier this month they are encouraged by Griffin's appointment, and many have said they hope he will seriously consider sending humans to save Hubble.