RS Classics: What About the Hubble Space Telescope?

>> Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Yep, it's another classic, this one written before the last (and wonderfully successful) Hubble Servicing Mission. Since I know my way around Hubble, EVA-wise, I'm adding it to the list.

Kathleen asked how we were going to service the Hubble and the ISS. It’s a fine question with an easy answer, but I think a lot of people will be dismayed to realize that Hubble is going to be out of reach for future servicing. After all, the gorgeous photographs coming from Hubble are one of the ways NASA touches regular folks. For those that are worried, don’t be.

For Hubble, the upcoming servicing mission (4, sort of) later this year, it’s unlikely we’ll ever service Hubble again. There were only planned to be four servicing mission (this will actually be the fifth). Of course, we had to make repairs and adjustments we never planned, like the corrective optics installed on Servicing Mission 1. Servicing Mission 3 also became servicing missions 3A and 3B because of the need to replace ailing gyros sooner rather than later (SM 3A). Unfortunately, the time in safe mode affected the electronics, so additional fixes were required for SM 3B, in addition to planned upgrades. As the EVA Safety lead for the last two missions, SM 3A and SM 3B, I can tell you they’re tough. Usually at least EVAs back to back, that are long, arduous, complicated and challenging. Fortunately, the Hubble folks are very responsive at finding ways to fix what was never planned to be fixed and we usually have exceptional EVA astronauts doing the work. It was a pleasure to work with all of them.

Hubble is the only one of the Great Observatories that had a low enough orbit to service or required it. The other great observatories: The Gamma Ray Observatory, The Chandra Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Those were all in orbits out of reach of the Shuttle or, in fact, any manned craft today. All but the Gamma Ray Observatory is still in service.

But never fear, Hubble lovers, work is underway building the James Webb telescope (in fact, one of my colleagues is working that now) that will do more than Hubble. They’re planning to launch that in 2013 and hopefully Hubble will survive until then.

Now, ISS is a real problem. The hope is that we will have another crew vehicle within a few years of the Shuttle’s retirement and people are working to achieve it. But the Crew Escape Vehicle (CEV) is a multipurpose craft that must also support Lunar missions. Multitaskers are not only challenging to build, but also tend not to be optimized.

In addition, the Russians can still send up Soyuz and Progress crafts, and the European Space Agency has already launched one Automated Transfer Vehicle (no crew) and JAXA, Japan’s Space Agency, is planning to launch their transfer vehicle, H-II Transfer Vehicle next year.

Having said that, none are a true replacement for Shuttle. She brings up more and brings down more: experiments, samples, crew, logistics, and even modules for assemblies. When the Shuttle retires, assembly will be effectively complete. We’ll be stuck with what we have unless it can be brought up in an automated fashion. And that will make a difference.

The Shuttle was definitely filling a niche and we just don’t have anything to replace her. Not now, probably never…

Unless the Commercial Human Spaceflight folks figure out something we haven’t. But, then, that’s an entirely different blog.


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