NASA Emails Show Growing Concerns About SpaceX Plan to Save Hubble Telescope


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The Hubble Space Telescope has been one of humanity’s greatest achievements. After a rocky start that required a servicing run to compensate for a mirror defect, the orbiting observatory has expanded our understanding of the universe for decades longer than expected. NASA now projects Hubble will shut down for good in the next few years. Rather than let the iconic telescope fall into disrepair, billionaire Jared Isaacman has proposed a private mission to repair Hubble. However, newly revealed emails show NASA believes the risk of such a mission could be too great.

NASA used Space Shuttles to conduct a series of servicing missions to repair and upgrade Hubble, but its final tune-up came in 2009, just before the end of the Shuttle program. Since that final mission, Hubble has been losing hardware and sinking toward Earth. NASA now projects it will fall into the atmosphere in the early 2030s if nothing is done.

SpaceX collaborator Jared Isaacman wants to do something and is willing to put his money where his mouth is. In 2022, NASA agreed to investigate a plan to use the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft to conduct another servicing mission. Such a mission could replace aging components and boost Hubble’s orbit, adding decades to its life.

Isaacman has recently reiterated his desire to fix Hubble following the announcement of SpaceX’s new spacesuits. These long-delayed EVA suits are designed to protect astronauts on spacewalks, which the company hopes to demonstrate on Isaacman’s Polaris Dawn mission in the coming months. However, NPR has obtained a collection of internal NASA emails that show significant concern about letting SpaceX send a crew to Hubble.

On the one hand, administrators acknowledge letting Isaacman foot the bill is good for NASA, but there are still hurdles. “This is a fantastic savings for NASA, but also a very challenging concept for NASA legal and procurement,” wrote NASA program manager Barbara Grofic. She noted that the feasibility study would be presented to the NASA administration the following day. The agency took concrete steps to plan for the possible mission in early 2023, just months after that presentation. Isaacman and others from SpaceX and Polaris were invited to tour NASA facilities and discuss the telescope. Isaacman seemed optimistic after that meeting. “We feel incredibly fortunate to play a small part in what we hope will become an exciting mission,” Isaacman said over email.

As the specifics fell into place, NASA personnel began expressing concerns. Shuttle missions lingered around Hubble for a week, giving astronauts time to tinker with the hardware, but Dragon doesn’t have that capability. In April 2023, Hubble expert Keith Kalinowski told NASA that a reboost mission was a good idea, but he believed using a Polaris spacewalk to get it done was too risky. Around the same time, NASA’s director of ISS operations, Dana Weigel, said in an email that “SpaceX’s view of risks and willingness to accept risk is considerably different than NASA’s.” She also fretted about the “extreme immaturity of the spacesuit,” referring to the EVA suit it has since unveiled.

SpaceX EVA

The new SpaceX EVA suit, which a NASA email faulted for it “extreme immaturity.”
Credit: SpaceX

NASA began building Hubble in 1977 and wrapped up in 1985. A planned 1986 launch was put on hold following the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger, but the telescope eventually made it to orbit in 1990. Shuttle crews had tools and materials the original engineering team designed to work with Hubble, but SpaceX hardware is decades more advanced. There could be myriad unforeseen issues attempting to repair the telescope today. Ultimately, NASA worries a Polaris servicing mission could damage the telescope, taking it offline even sooner than expected. There is also concern that astronauts could be injured or even killed attempting to extend Hubble’s mission.

The risks of such a plan are undoubtedly very real, but launching a space telescope isn’t easy. The James Webb Space Telescope was delayed by more than a decade before it finally launched in late 2021, and time on this instrument is in high demand—it probably will be for the observatory’s entire life. It would be a shame to let Hubble’s big, beautiful mirror crash to Earth when it could potentially gaze upon the universe for another 20 years. If Polaris Dawn goes well, NASA may be under more pressure to approve the mission.

View original source here.

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