Mars Society backs Hubble

So you thought it was a budgetary choice between Mars exploration and saving Hubble? Mars Society president Robert Zubrin doesn’t think so and has strongly backed a previously planned mission to service Hubble. The text of his e-mail follows:

Mobilize NOW to Save Hubble!
March 21, 2005
For further information about the Mars Society, visit our website at

Over the next few weeks, a series of hearings and meetings between Congress and NASA will determine the fate of the Hubble Space Telescope. It is imperative that everyone concerned with the future of science and the American space program mobilize now to save this great observatory.

The background of the matter is as follows: Built, launched, repaired, and successively upgraded at total cost of some $4 billion, the Hubble Space Telescope has made numerous important discoveries about the nature and structure of the universe. It is the most powerful instrument in the history of astronomy, and far and away the most productive spacecraft that NASA has ever launched. Because it orbits above the atmosphere, which both smears light and blocks out major portions of the spectrum, the Hubble can see things that no ground-based telescope can see, or will ever see. It took decades of hard work by very dedicated people to create Hubble, and an equivalent space-based replacement is decades away. In contrast to the general run of meaningless Shuttle missions carrying silly science fair experiments, the Shuttle flights to Hubble stand as epochal achievements in the history of humanity’s search for truth. Indeed, if one considers the moral significance of the scientific enterprise to our society and culture, Hubble emerges not just as NASA’s finest work, but as perhaps the highest expression of the human creative spirit in the 20th Century.

At a cost of $167 million, two new instruments, the Widefield Camera 3 and the Cosmic Origins Spectrometer have been developed and built which, once installed on Hubble, would together triple the instrument’s sensitivity. Accordingly, NASA had scheduled the SM4 Shuttle mission, which would both add these capabilities and perform certain other maintenance tasks that would extend the life of Hubble through at least 2010. Since under the new space policy, the Shuttles are scheduled to remain operational through 2010, a final Shuttle mission to Hubble could occur at that time, allowing one last replacement of the telescopes batteries and gyros and a reboost of its orbit, thereby making it functional beyond 2015. If SM4 is not flown, however, Hubble’s aging gyroscopes would put the space observatory out of commission by 2007. Incredibly, on January 16, 2004, the technically illiterate former NASA Administrator Sean. O’Keefe announced that he had decided to allow that to happen.

Mr. O’Keefe justified his decision by claiming that Shuttle missions to Hubble had to cease because they were unsafe, since, in contrast to missions to the ISS (to which, under the president’s policy about 25 more Shuttles would be flown), Hubble missions offer no alternative safe-haven to the crew. This argument was basically nonsense, since the ISS cannot house a complete shuttle crew for long anyway, and moreover there are numerous other features of ISS missions that make them more dangerous than Hubble flights. For example, Hubble missions depart the Cape flying east-southeast, which means that in the event of an abort, the crew can ditch in tropical waters where their survival chances would be much better than in the frigid North Atlantic and Arctic oceans overflown by the northeast flying ISS missions. Hubble missions also take off much more lightly laden than ISS missions, which makes them safer, as less performance is required of the engines to make it to orbit. Furthermore, the micrometeorite and orbital debris danger in ISS orbits is estimated by NASA to be about 60% greater in ISS orbit than in Hubble orbit.

So NASA’s own risk analysis did not support Mr. O’Keefe’s claim of higher Hubble mission risk, and while the Administrator declined to include such information in his briefings to congressional committees, NASA personnel were quick to leak the relevant data to the press. Mr. O’Keefe countered by ordering high-level NASA officials who were known to be ardent supporters of Hubble to take public stands supporting his decision. The disgusting spectacle of bureaucratic self-humiliation that followed was more reminiscent of a Stalin-era show trial than a technical debate, and appropriately, only excited derision in the press. Mr. O’Keefe then argued that regardless of the actual risk, the recommendations of Admiral Gehman’s Columbia Accident Investigation Board precluded a Shuttle flight to Hubble, but in a letter to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D- MD), a strong Hubble supporter, this claim was rejected out of hand by Gehman himself. Admiral Gehman’s response provided Mr. O’Keefe with an exit opportunity from his policy blunder, but the NASA Administrator decided not to take it. Not only that, but when Sen. Mikulski and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) ordered a National Academy of Science review of the matter, Mr. O’Keefe responded by saying that while he welcomed an NAS review, he would not change his decision regardless of anything they said.

As a final dodge, Mr. O’Keefe then announced that he sincerely wanted to save Hubble, but just could not bring himself to risk human life to do so. Accordingly, he would request $1.9 billion in new funds to develop robots capable of performing the mission. This proposal was very disingenuous. A Hubble upgrade mission requires the coordinated effort of seven highly trained and superbly skilled astronauts using a spacecraft and other equipment that has been specifically designed and extensively tested as suitable to this purpose. In contrast, there isn’t a robot on this planet that can change out an overhead kitc
hen lighting fixture. NASA has a system of technology readiness levels (TRLs) that it uses to determine the appropriateness of including a technology on a mission. According to this system, it would be unac
ceptable to employ a technology in a mission critical role on an important spacecraft any piece of hardware that was rated lower than TRL 7. At best, the robots touted by Mr. O’Keefe as candidates for Hubble repair were at TRL 4, and their advocacy for such a function represented an arbitrary and complete abandonment of NASA mission planning discipline.

In December 2004, the NAS-National Research Council committee reported back, and rejected the robotic repair, calling for reinstating SM4 in its place. Mr. O’Keefe subsequently announced his resignation, bu
t then, before departing, submitted a NASA budget containing no funds for either SM4 or robotic repair. Instead, Mr. O’Keefe requested $300 million to develop a special spacecraft to deorbit Hubble, i.e. crash it into the ocean in a controlled fashion. This proposal is remarkable for its irrationality. NASA calculates that if Hubble were to re-enter without direction, there is a 1/10,000 chance that the resulting debris would strike someone. That works out to a probability of one life saved per $3 trillion spent. If life-saving is the mission, $300 million could do a lot more good spent on tsunami relief, body armor for the troops, highway safety barriers, childhood vaccinations, swimming lessons, take your pick.

Humanitarian and scientific budgets cannot be directly compared, because they serve different objectives. However the proposed Hubble deorbit budget is NOT a scientific expense; its purpose is to save lives, and thus it must be considered a humanitarian expense, and judged accordingly. A reasonable estimate is that one life is saved for every $3,000 spent on Tsunami relief. At that rate, the decision to waste $300 million in potentially useful humanitarian funds on deorbiting Hubble amounts to the willful killing of roughly 100,000 people — mostly children. It is irresponsible, irrational, and immoral in the extreme.

The damage done to NASA and the new space initiative by Mr. O’Keefe’s irrational actions has been substantial, and threatens to become much worse and long lasting if his decision is allowed to stand. Effectively, by choosing the most valuable part of the old space program and selecting it for destruction as collateral damage of implementing the new, the former Administrator has branded the President’s vision with the mark of Cain. Opponents of the new policy have blamed the loss of the space telescope on the Moon-Mars initiative, and indeed, it is difficult to take seriously the claims of scientific purpose of an agency which chooses to abandon its capabilities so flippantly. Why should NASA receive more funds to build new space telescopes when, like a spoiled child bored with a two-hour old toy, it willfully th
rows away the one it already has? And how can anyone believe that an agency which is afraid to embrace the risks involved in launching astronauts to Hubble will ever be ready to send humans to Mars? Congr
ess has spent many billions funding NASA to create the hardware needed to implement the Shuttle/Hubble program, only to be confronted with a NASA Administrator who refuses to use it. If Mr. O’Keefe’s decisi
on to desert Hubble is not reversed, how can Congress know that after they spend further tens of billions for human flight systems to the Moon and Mars, that the agency leadership won’t get cold feet again?

Americans committed to a sane, moral, and courageous space policy need to mobilize now to save Hubble. Everyone should call their own Senators and Congressional representatives, ask to speak to their legislative aides, and demand that the SM4 mission to save and upgrade Hubble be reinstated, and that not a penny of the taxpayers’ money be spent on the immoral Hubble de-orbit mission. If NASA has funds available for humanitarian purposes, those funds should be spent to save lives, not wasted to validate the capricious decisions of a Philistine careerist bureaucrat who has since moved on to greener pastures.

Given the decision to maintain the Shuttle flying in a given year, the incremental cost of flying an additional Shuttle mission such as SM4 is only about $100 million. Instead of stupidly and heartlessly wa
sting $300 million to destroy Hubble, we should use $100 million to save and upgrade this gem of science and civilization, and spend the other $200 million to save the lives of tens of thousands of destitute children far more worthy of our charity than the Hubble deorbit program. Call congress and tell them so!

All congressmen and Senators can be reached through the Capitol switchboard number, 303-224-3121. In addition to calling your own representatives, you should also call the office of House Science Committee
Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) [202-225-3665, 202-225- 1891 (fax), and Senate Space Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) 202-224-5922, 202-224-0776 (FAX). Emails should also be sent to Pr
esident George Bush at

For further background explaining why O’Keefe’s arguments for deserting Hubble have absolutely no merit, an article written by Mars Society president Dr. Robert Zubrin and published in Space News February 9, 2004, is reproduced below.

Don’t Desert Hubble
Robert Zubrin
Space News
February 9, 2004

On January 16th, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe announced that he had decided to cancel all future Space Shuttle missions to the Hubble Space Telescope, including SM4, the nearly-ready-to-go flight that would have installed the new Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and Wide Field Camera 3 instruments. This decision came atop an overall policy shift by the Bush administration to phase out the Shuttle and Internatio
nal Space Station (ISS) commitments by 2010, thereby clearing the way to redeploy their budgets towards supporting human exploration of the Moon and Mars. While the general redirection of NASA’s human spaceflight program from Earth orbital activities towards planetary exploration was a valuable and long-overdue step, canceling the Hubble upgrade mission was a huge mistake.

The Hubble Space Telescope has been the most scientifically productive spacecraft in history. Through Hubble, we have observed directly the planetary cometary impacts that drive the evolution of life, witnessed the birth of stars that make all life possible, and measured the size and age of the universe itself. Because of Hubble, we now know that ordinary matter is a very small part of the universe and that the expansion of the universe is speeding up, not slowing down as previously thought — thereby revealing a new and unexpected force of nature. The astronaut missions that have made this possible stand as epic achievements in the chronicles of humanity’s search for truth.

Now we have a chance to push further. The Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and Wide Field Camera 3 designed to bring the Hubble to its full potential have already been built and tested at a cost of $167 million,
and promise an enormous scientific return upon delivery to orbit. With the help of these instruments, Hubble would be able probe deeper into space and time, helping to reveal the processes that governed the origin of the universe and that will determine its ultimate fate. How can the decision abort such a program possibly be justified?

Certainly not on the basis of cost. If the Bush plan were to stand down the Shuttle immediately, and save the $24 billion required to operate it through 2010 so as to initiate the Moon/Mars program this year with substantial funding, that would be one thing. But given the decision to return the Shuttle to flight, canceling the Hubble upgrade would only save a pittance. It takes about $4 billion per year to maintain the standing army of engineers and technicians that support the Shuttle program, but it only costs an additional $100 million or so to fly five Shuttles in a given year instead of four. Thus the additional cost to the taxpayer to fly both SM4 and a subsequent flight a few years later to replace the Hubble’s batteries and gyros and reboost it to a higher orbit where it could be functional well into the next decade would only be about $200 million, or less than one percent of the Shuttle program’s budget over its remaining life. From a financial point of view, the decision to abandon the Hubble upgrade while continuing Shuttle flights amounts to throwing out the baby while keeping the bathwater.

Safety arguments won’t wash either; if the Shuttle is safe enough to fly to the ISS, it’s safe enough to go to Hubble. It is true then when flying to the ISS, the crew has a safe haven, so that if they should discover damage to the Shuttle’s thermal protection tile system, they could retire to the space station and survive for a short time while they wait for retrieval by a Russian Soyuz capsule. In this sce
nario, ISS missions would possess a safety features that Hubble missions lack. But tile damage during launch is not the only source of Shuttle flight risk. According to most analysis, the greatest source of flight risk stems from the possibility fatal impacts by micrometeor or orbital debris (MMOD). ISS orbits are much more hazardous in this respect than Hubble orbits. For example, on STS-113, the last Shuttle station flight, the calculated probability of loss of vehicle and crew by MMOD was 1/250. In contrast, the last Hubble servicing mission (STS-109) had a much lower calculated MMOD probability of 1/414.

After MMOD, it is believed that the greatest risk faced by Shuttle flights stems from the possibility of engine failure during launch. Because Hubble missions lift off with a much lighter payload than most ISS missions, they are can deal with this danger much more effectively. For example, in order to be able to abort to orbit on an ISS mission such as STS-113 (Endeavor), all three Shuttle main engines must fire for a full 282 seconds before one cuts out. In contrast, on Hubble missions such as STS-103 (Discovery), only 188 s of full three-engine operation is required. This lower full-power time requirement f
or Hubble missions is a critical safety advantage, because the maximum time that either ISS or Hubble missions can attempt a Return to Launch Site (RTLS) abort is about 232 s. Thus Hubble missions have a 50 second overlap during which either a RTLS or orbital abort is possible, whereas ISS missions have a 50 s gap in which neither is possible.

If the Shuttle cannot perform either an RTLS or orbital orbit, it might be able to reach a transoceanic landing site, but in all probability will have to splash down in the ocean. When they depart the Cape, Hubble missions fly east-southeast, and they thus have the possibility to ditch in warm tropical waters. In contrast, ISS flights leave the Cape traveling northeast, and their crews face the bleak prospect of aborts into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, where their chances for survival would be much less. Thus, while no true quantitative engineering analysis has been done to establish whether and to
what extent individual Shuttle flights to ISS are more or less risky than individual Hubble missions, there is good reason to believe that it is Hubble flights that offer greater safety.

However, if we include the consideration that only two Shuttle flights would be needed to make Hubble operational through 2015, while at least 20 missions will be needed to complete the ISS, it becomes apparent that the risk associated with the latter program is at least an order of magnitude greater.

A comparison of mission risk associated with Shuttle flights to ISS and Hubble is presented in the table below.

Table: Comparison of Shuttle Hubble and ISS Mission Risk

Feature ISS Hubble Safer Option
Haven on Orbit? Yes No ISS
Micrometeor Danger(MMOD) 1/250 (STS-113) 1/414 (STS-109) Hubble
Ocean Abort Site North Atlantic Equatorial Waters Hubble
No Return (RTLS) time 232 s(STS-113) 231 s (STS-103) Equal
Abort to Orbit time 282 s STS-113) 188 s (STS-103) Hubble
Press to MECO(1 engine out) 391 s(STS-113) 265 s (STS-103) Hubble
Press to MECO (2 engine out) 425 s(STS-113) 380 s (STS-103) Hubble
# of Program Flights Needed >20 2 Hubble

* Press to MECO means time required at full three-engine power before the planned orbit can be achieved.

Furthermore, consider this: Under the new space policy, the President intends to ask Congress to spend billions of dollars to develop technology to enable human Moon and Mars missions. Yet Congress has just spent $167 million to develop the instruments for SM4, only to be told by the NASA Administrator that he is now afraid to fly the Shuttle to deliver them. If such behavior is accepted, what guarantee can lawmakers have that after they spend billions to develop manned Moon or Mars exploration hardware, a future NASA administrator might not also get cold feet? It is difficult to understand how an agency which is too risk-adverse to undertake a Shuttle mission to Hubble could possibly be serious in considering a piloted mission to the Moon or Mars.

The decision to cancel the Hubble mission thus completely undermines the President’s call for human planetary exploration. Unless we are willing to accept risks equal to, and in fact significantly greater, than those required to upgrade the space telescope, human explorers are not going to the Moon, Mars, or anywhere else. And if we are not going to engage in human interplanetary travel, then the primary rationale for the Space Station program — learning about the effects of long-duration spaceflight on human physiology — must be brought into question as well.
The point is not that we should be blas about risk. The point is that there are certain things that require accepting risk to achieve, and are worth the price that such a course will entail. The search for truth, carried forward by necessarily perilous human activities in space — whether at Hubble, or on Mars — is one of them. Nothing great has ever been accomplished without courage. If we abandon courage, we turn our back on all that has made our civilization one worth celebrating.

In the face of massive public outrage about his decision, Administrator O’Keefe has agreed to allow it to be reviewed by Columbia Accident Investigation Board Chairman Admiral Hal Gehman. Hopefully Gehman will rectify the situation. But if he does not, then Congress will have to act. They will have to take action, because ultimately the question of whether we do what it takes to keep our eyes open upon the heavens is not one of the technicalities of Shuttle flight safety, but of societal values.

The desertion of Hubble is an offense against science and civilization. It represents a departure from the pioneer spirit, and its ratification as policy would preclude any possibility of a human future in space. It is an inexcusable decision, and it needs to be reversed.
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Note added; March 21, 2005. Admiral Gehman did in fact answer the Senators’ inquiry by stating that Hubble missions were no more dangerous than ISS missions. Mr. O’Keefe chose to ignore his answer. So congress must act. To get congress to act, you must act. Call your representative and Senators today. 202-224-3121

For further information about the Mars Society, visit our website at

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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