Total Recall II

January 24th, 2005

Posted by: admin

Author: Kevin Vranes (website. email)

One day last year while, with some astonishment, listening to Sean O’Keefe blithely tell his Senate overseers whatever they wanted to hear, I couldn’t help but wonder how O’Keefe was ever able to talk the White House upper echelon into his nutty manned Mars vision. GW already had the reputation – if not yet the direct sobriquet from Senator McCain – of spending like a drunken sailor (although of course it is Congress that spends, not the President, but editorial writers and talking heads never seem to remember that). It was apparent to most that putting a few people on Mars might be measured in the trillions of dollars (the White House and NASA have sidestepped putting a price tag on moon/Mars, but hinted at about $180B by 2020, which is when the moon bases will be completed and we might be ready to launch to Mars). With the U.S. already in heavy debt and the Chinese and Japanese buying up American dollars just as fast as the Philadelphia mint would print them, spending huge new sums on exploration visions seemed curious.

But no sooner was POTUS running over America with a new grand space vision (which, incidentally, was timed suspiciously close to the Chinese announcement of an intention to go to the moon – causing some to wonder if we were in a new race to repeat something we accomplished forty years previously), than the trickle down began at NASA. Previous grumblings about NASA running NOAA’s satellites were renewed, and most Earth scientists who had received NASA grant money were warned of a tighter future (which was later made reality in the FY05 budget).

Somewhere buried in the calculations of the new moon/Mars paradigm is one of NASA’s most successful science missions: the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble is aging, its orbit decaying, and in order to keep HST from presenting itself upon some random city, NASA has two choices: boost it and fix it, or fly it into the Indian Ocean. Fixing it adds a new wrinkle, however: financing O’Keefe’s new moon/Mars calculus means backing out of the ISS as fast as possible. To O’Keefe, this meant (referring to his Senate testimony last Spring and conversations with NASA employees) that not even one Shuttle flight could be spared to fix Hubble. The only option would be a robotic mission to prevent Hubble from sharing the fate of the Andrea Gail. But a robotic mission to save Hubble is understandably distasteful, with a high price and very high risk.

O’Keefe has always covered his distaste for manned Hubble repair under the cloak of a deep fear for astronaut safety. O’Keefe may honestly fear for astronaut safety, but he never explained the difference in safety between servicing Hubble and continuing to build ISS over the next decade, which will also use the shuttle. His determination to not send astronauts to HST has continued despite the clamoring for a repair mission from most astronauts(the ones who take the risks), the National Research Council, the American Astronomy Society, and dozens of other interested expert groups. After the weight of these communities have done nothing to sway his proclivities, Sean O’Keefe’s steadfast refusal to even consider saving the Hubble seems obviously connected to his devotion to retooling NASA for Total Recall II.

News accounts today (link, link, and link) confirm the new prioritization. NASA now plans a robotic mission to Hubble solely designed to de-orbit the telescope, spitting in the face of the nearly $300 million Congress appropriated in FY05 to service Hubble. The reports also confirm that NASA continues to shy away from paying $1 billion to save a highly successful and proven program in favor breaking the bank on a much more expensive project – perhaps eventually in the many trillions – that may never fly anyway.

Now that O’Keefe has announced a move to more lucrative employment in order to send his kids to college, the rest of the scientific community might have expected a manned mission to save Hubble to be back on the table. Apparently it won’t be back on the table for the Office of Management and Budget and NASA. The NASA locomotives have begun to lumber away toward manned moon/Mars, and even though the chief engineer has bailed out, not even the astronauts who are volunteering to risk their lives for Hubble can stop the train.

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