Two Cheers for NASA

E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

Only two cheers today, but one’s pretty loud and the other’s well above audible. First, NASA will save the Hubble Space Telescope. Second, NASA has established a venture capital entity designed to direct government research contracts (and funds) toward small high-tech companies with ideas that look promising for the space program.

The Loud Hurrah
Repairing and refurbishing the magnificent Hubble will be in a sense straightforward, in that its needs are well understood. Actually carrying out this fourth and, we presume, final servicing mission, will be anything but trivial. In five back-to-back excursions into the wilds of space, four astronauts working in pairs will install:

  • Six new batteries
  • Six new gyros
  • A new camera
  • An advanced UV spectrograph
  • A replacement fine-guidance sensor for target location and tracking

They will also try to repair an imaging spectrometer, a task that entails removing 111 noncaptive screws and keeping them corralled in zero gravity. If all that weren’t enough, those valiant repairmen will plug in a power supply circuit board, install a cooling system to serve the spectrometer, patch up the telescope’s thermal insulation, and—add part of what will be needed to bring Hubble out of orbit and toward its eventual demise. (Sigh.) In the astonomers’ dream world, Hubble’s final years will overlap with the first ones of the James Webb Space Telescope, which will see in the mid-to-far IR range. The projected date is 2013.

We Owe You, Columbia
One unhappy reason NASA first declared itself ready to forsake the Hubble was the loss of the shuttle Columbia. The U.S. was out of the business of sending people into space for quite some time after that tragedy. Three important developments arising from the loss of those intrepid astronauts are making Hubble’s rescue possible now: The reason for Columbia’s disintegration was determined. A way to inspect and potentially even fix the problem was devised. And as a consequence, Discovery, which will ferry the Hubble’s saviors, will be backed up with another shuttle in case a rescue mission is needed to bring the crew back home. (An emergency stay at ISS is out of the question—its orbit is too far from Hubble’s for Discovery to make the jump.)

Now for the Second Hurrah
Red Planet Capital is a nonprofit entity NASA has set up as a funnel of government funds to support R&D in small, high-tech companies. As this venture capital initiative’s name suggests, one of its prime directives is to send manned missions back to the Moon and on to Mars. The idea is also to persuade private venture capital outfits to form syndicates that could give their investment dollars a wider reach.

Before You Place that Call
Although the official line is that only technologies and products of likely interest to NASA’s aims stand a chance of getting backing, the agency admits it can’t draw up a list of exactly what those might be. Not that Red Planet management will be flying blind—NASA will have an active advisory role, presumably with regular tweaks to the steering wheel. Nor is the agency saying that everything it might support must be space-, Moon-, or Mars-ready right now. Subsequent adaptation is a certainty.

But at least NASA’s figured out that there could be some really tiny bunches of really bright people in really surprising parts of this country working on what could be the next wave in propulsion technology. Or solutions to the hazards of exposure to deep space radiation. And give them enough money to keep their work going.

What about a Third Cheer?
I will offer that one up when NASA redirects itself, at least for many years, away from sending adventurers to Mars and toward focusing on robotics and teleoperated equipment that would be far safer than sending human crews into space. And on restoring funds for satellites that would tell us more about how and what our Earth is up to. Another look at Triana might be a good idea. That mission could help settle the squabble over the extent to which we, and not solar variations, are causing the undeniable warming of our planet.

When the esteemed astronomer Harold Shapley, always one to look into the future, observed the first Moon landing in 1969, he remarked that we should shoot for resolutions on Earth rather than shoot for the Moon.

Your comments invited!