By now you’ve heard that NASA has changed its mind and decided to send a mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble has been an amazing instrument, its pictures seen and marvelled at by people literally around the world.
The most amazing thing about NASA’s decision is that it’s front page news for the premier reporting organisations in the world, CNN, the New York Times, and the BBC. This interest should be humbling to those of who make our living in the world of astronomy.
Right now, however, NASA is strapped for cash: most of its budget is going to keeping the Shuttle running, putting the Space Station together and planning for Bush’s pipe-dream trip to Mars. The small amount left over for doing science is being directed toward a few high-profile (and expensive) projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope (touted as Hubble’s successor), which at present seems to be squeezing out equally-worthy projects such as the “Beyond Einstein” program. As some have already noted, including Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and head of the Royal Society, the worry with a Hubble Servicing mission is that it will take yet more money from NASA’s dwindling science budget, keeping a wonderful but ageing piece of hardware going after its sell-by date. We can hope that science funding isn’t a zero-sum game, that this may result in more money overall going to exciting scientific projects. But we shouldn’t be greedy…
Moreover, of course, missions like this are dangerous — the Shuttle itself is creaky, and fixing Hubble will require five separate spacewalks. Astronauts have repeatedly expressed their enthusiasm for this mission, and we comparatively lazy and cowardly earthbound astronomers should be honored and, again, humbled.