WASHINGTON - The White House has eliminated funding for a mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope from its 2006 budget request and directed NASA to focus solely on de-orbiting the popular spacecraft at the end of its life, according to government and industry sources.
NASA is debating when and how to announce the change of plans. Sources told Space News that outgoing NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe likely will make the announcement Feb. 7 during the public presentation of the U.S. space agency's 2006 budget request.
That budget request, according to government and industry sources, will not include any money for Hubble servicing but will include some money for a mission to attach a propulsion module to Hubble needed to safely de-orbit the spacecraft with a controlled re-entry into the Pacific Ocean. NASA would not need to launch such a mission before the end of the decade to guide the massive telescope safely into the ocean.
Sources said O'Keefe received his marching orders on Hubble Jan. 13 during a meeting with White House officials to finalize the agency's 2006 budget request. With both robotic and shuttle-based servicing options expected to cost well in excess of $1 billion, sources said, NASA was told it simply could not afford to save Hubble given everything else NASA has on its agenda, including preparing the shuttle fleet to fly again.
NASA has not yet informed key congressional committees with jurisdiction over the space agency. But congressional sources told Space News they had been hearing since late last week that significant changes were afoot for Hubble.
These same sources, however, said they had not ruled out that the White House and NASA might be canceling the Hubble servicing mission as the 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.
Regardless of NASA's intent, one Senate source predicted that the decision would "go over like a lead balloon" for many lawmakers. A House source concurred. "It's going to really upset the Hubble crowd and that includes some members of Congress," the House source said.
In December, after the National Academy of Sciences issued a report calling on NASA to reinstate a space shuttle mission to refurbish Hubble, Congress followed up by directing NASA to spend $291 million this year preparing for some type of Hubble Servicing mission. NASA's initial operating plan for 2005, sent to Congress late last year for its review, only set aside $175 million of that amount for Hubble, with the rest of the money allocated to other agency priorities.
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Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and SpaceNews.com. He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.