Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The A-Team

Today NASA made official what had been speculated for a year or more: STS-125 will make a final housecall to the Hubble Space Telescope. I found it most interesting how much the STS-125 crew looks like the last Hubble servicing crew on STS-109.

I'm a bit surprised by the crew selection, because it's not like another crew can't be trained to do the job. I suppose that NASA is leaving nothing to chance and sending a veteran A-Team of astronauts Altman, Grunsfeld and Massimino to do the job.

My memories of STS-109 are quite fond. It was the second shuttle launch I had witnessed in person, and followers of the shuttle program take note of the distinctive contrails that punctured through the low clouds on that nippy March morning. A previous launch attempt was scrubbed because of concerns about the cold temperatures on the SRB's O-Rings. That prompted my drafting professor to recall her memories of witnessing the loss of Challenger on a similar morning, over 16 years prior.

It appears that Hubble will live well into 2013. Perhaps an Orion capsule (outfitted with a payload module) can keep it alive for another few years after that. Of course, only the "Direct Launcher" boosters would be able to launch Orion and the prerequisite payload module into the proper orbit.

Then again, there will be a point of diminishing returns for Hubble. We can now build smaller telescopes with capabilities similar to that of Hubble. We can launch these smaller telescopes into orbits that are optimized for the mission, and even launch them to Lagrange Points. Hubble was designed and built in the early 80's for a planned 1986 launch; its orbit was designed so the shuttle could launch and service the telescope.

NASA's astronomy priority since Michael Griffin was confirmed has been the use of the shuttle to extend Hubble's life. Now that this course has been set in stone, NASA should make it a priority to prepare a true Hubble replacement for launch in 2013.