A Senate subcommittee took a step yesterday toward extending the life of the Hubble Space Telescope, approving a $250 million down payment on a possible servicing mission.
"I think it's great news," said Steven Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which manages scientific research on the telescope.
Without a servicing mission, Hubble is expected to die by the middle of 2008. If it is serviced - at a cost estimated to be $500 million or more - Hubble would be productive five years beyond that, Beckwith said.
The Hubble money was added to a NASA spending plan. Overall, the budget for NASA approved by the subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies is $16.4 billion - $60 million below the president's request and $90 million below what the House passed last week.
The spending plan fully funds the shuttle program and the new effort to build a spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts back to the moon and beyond.
It does not fully fund the servicing mission. But Senate aides said NASA already has $125 million available, so there would be $375 million for Hubble.
Additional money could be appropriated next year or taken from other NASA programs to fund the full $500 million cost.
The NASA spending plan - including money for the Hubble mission - must still win approval in the Senate Appropriations Committee and the full Senate, then go to a House and Senate conference committee.
But Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and longtime champion of the Hubble who was instrumental in securing funding yesterday, said she's optimistic because the mission has the tentative support of NASA's new administrator, Michael D. Griffin.
"I have long said that Hubble is the greatest scientific instrument since Galileo's telescope," she said in a written statement. "That's why I wasn't going to let it die without a fight."
Mikulski also will serve on the conference committee to negotiate differences between the Senate and the House, which did not approve Hubble servicing money.
Hubble has been serviced and upgraded by astronauts four times since its launch in April 1990. The service missions have vastly increased its power and extended its useful life well beyond original estimates.
But early last year, former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe canceled plans for a fifth mission that would have installed two new instruments and replaced failing gyroscopes and batteries.
He cited tightened safety guidelines set by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and decreed that all future shuttle flights would be dedicated to the completion of the International Space Station.
Griffin, who took the helm of the space agency in April, has said he wants to reverse that decision, provided the first two shuttle flights since the Columbia accident are completed safely.
Plans to eliminate the Hubble servicing mission prompted opposition from the telescope supporters who say the startling images of distant stars have increased interest in astronomy.
The financial stakes in Maryland are high as well. The Space Telescope Science Institute employs about 400 people on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University, where it has managed Hubble since its launch in 1990.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt oversees Hubble's day-to-day operations. About 120 civil servants and 200 contractors at Goddard have spent at least some time this year working on a Hubble servicing mission, said Ed Campion, a Goddard spokesman.