THE REASON for NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe's refusal to send astronauts into space to retrofit the Hubble Space Telescope can be summed up in two words: too risky. But a new report by a panel of experts has undercut his argument, finding that a manned repair mission is only slightly more risky than planned flights to the International Space Station. The panel also raised significant doubts that an unmanned robotics mission could do the job. Fixing Hubble so it can continue to inform and enhance our knowledge of stars, planets and deep space is the objective here, and Mr. O'Keefe should put his money on astronauts, not machines.
We understand Mr. O'Keefe's misgivings. Like him, many of us watched as the crew of the shuttle Columbia died in a fiery explosion in the skies over Texas 22 months ago. The image remains with us, and surely for Mr. O'Keefe, hauntingly so. But ever since America's space program began, risk has been a factor in training for and carrying out manned space flight.
Those who have sacrificed their lives are familiar to us: Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom and his Apollo I colleagues, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee; the seven-member crew of the Challenger; the seven astronauts aboard Columbia. After each tragedy, NASA reviewed the missteps and malfunctions to ensure a safe, successful outcome of future missions. In the case of Columbia, an investigative review panel attributed the cause of the accident as much to the mindset of NASA's bureaucracy as to the shuttle's damaged wing.
If NASA has addressed that institutional failing, then the agency should be prepared to resume its shuttle program. And repairing the Hubble Space Telescope would be a worthy endeavor because it has offered scientific rewards unlike any other telescope on the planet. The National Research Council review found that the 14-year-old Hubble, which is managed from the Johns Hopkins University campus, is in its prime for delivering stunning images and extraordinary science. It has outperformed all expectations. But without needed repairs, Hubble's fine eye will deteriorate and the telescope will devolve into space rubble as soon as 2007.
Thanks to the telescope's scientific achievements and popular appeal, the possibility of a repair mission has been kept alive. This year, Mr. O'Keefe was persuaded to investigate sending robots into space to fix Hubble. He warmed to the idea because it offered more bang for NASA's buck -- repair Hubble and advance robotics technology that Mr. O'Keefe believes the agency will need in the future. But the expert panel said NASA couldn't count on the robotics to be in place in time.
With the agency shrinking and President Bush bucking for a program to Mars, Mr. O'Keefe wants to phase out the shuttle program. A Hubble repair mission would offer a grand finale.