The Hubble Mission and the Future of NASA

If all goes according to plan, the shuttle Atlantis will lift off from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center today for the last servicing mission of the Hubble Space Telescope ... bringing together, possibly for the last time, the two sometimes-competing arms of NASA's space exploration divisions.

To the outsider, NASA might seem like one big entity that, collectively, explores near and far space. But having written six books for the agency, I can tell you that it's a very segmented place. The "first A" in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, aeronautics (aircraft and flight within the atmosphere), is a completely different realm--with completely different budgets--than the space side, and human space flight is separate from the scientific, or satellite-based, space research. Even satellite-based scientific research is divided into planetary research (based primarily at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA) and atmospheric/cosmic research (based at the Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, MD).

Not that there isn't overlap or cooperative effort among the research disciplines or centers. But they represent very different areas of focus and schools of thought. And, not surprisingly, the scientists and engineers who work there have very different opinions about where or how the agency's most valuable work is done. Particularly when it comes to the continuing value of human space flight.

This July, it will be 40 years since Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon. The Space Shuttle, while anything but the mundane "Space Transportation System" (STS) it was originally envisioned to be, has been flying missions to Low Earth Orbit for more than a quarter century. But while the Shuttle remains an engineering marvel, and an incredibly exciting experience for the lucky and risk-tolerant few who have gotten to fly in it, I have long believed that the single, or at least the best, argument for keeping the Shuttle flying was its role in maintaining and improving the Hubble Telescope.

Why? Because, over the course of 13 years and hundreds of interviews with NASA researchers and managers, including at least half a dozen shuttle commanders, a pattern emerged.
All of the professionals I talked with were passionately enthusiastic about their work. But human space flight is primarily an engineering challenge. The "wow" factor and enthusiasm came from the fact that we could figure out how to do it. Imagine the excitement of launching the first human off the planet. Or landing two of them on the Moon. Or designing a reusable spacecraft that could land on a runway, after orbiting the Earth.

The scientific satellite researchers had no less of a gleam in their eye when they talked about their work. But the spark and passion came from what they, and by extension "we," had learned from the machines they'd launched into space. And what we've learned--about both our planet and the cosmos surrounding us--has been nothing short of transformative.

In 1997, I spent a memorable morning talking with Dr. John Mather, who later won a Nobel Prize for his exploration of cosmic background radiation patterns consistent with the "Big Bang" theory of the universe. After discussing his ground-breaking research, our conversation spread to the impact of scientific space research, in general. It was 12 years ago, but I still remember him saying that the Hubble Space Telescope was particularly significant, because it had transformed not just the scientific community's view, but the public's awareness, interest, and understanding of the universe. To illustrate, he talked about a "Deep Field" photo taken in 1995 with the Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (which is being replaced with an upgraded WFPC3 camera during the Atlantis mission). The image was the result of researchers wondering what would happen if they trained the camera on a completely dark spot in space for a number of days. A spot, if I recall correctly, that was no bigger than a grain of sand held at arms' length. What emerged, over the course of 10 days, was an image that showed not just hundreds of stars, but hundreds of galaxies.

Dr. Mather and I talked about how scientists had also learned that comets emit, at different points in their travels, all the elements necessary for carbon-based life. There was much we still needed to learn about whether comets were intra or extra-solar, he said, and many other explanations and possibilities out there. Nevertheless ... not that many years ago, he noted, most scientists were skeptical about there being intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. But in the huge number of galaxies that we now realized existed, the chances of there NOT being another planet orbiting the right distance from a medium-sized star/sun ... and quite possibly with the right combination of elements to form intelligent, and even carbon-based life ... seemed infinitesimally small.

It's eminently cool that we can build things and spend long periods of time in Low Earth Orbit. But the Hubble, and its sister/brother robotic explorers and scientific satellites, have transformed our understanding of not only the universe, but of our place within it. Which is to say, if I had to make tough choices with a NASA budget, I'd make sure the scientific research continued, even if it meant canceling the human space flight projects.

This is heresy to many at NASA, I know. There are some very smart engineers and managers there who would passionately disagree with me on this one. In their eyes, we need the inspiration provided by human space flight. And, they argue, the technology advances we would make in our efforts to build a station on the Moon, or reach Mars, would then allow us to take further steps to "boldly go where no man has gone before" outside our solar system. Which could be useful in case of asteroid collision or other disaster. As one engineer put it to me, "SPS's ... Single Planet Species ... are doomed."  And, you know ... they may be right. But who knows? Extra-solar space travel might also become possible through some yet-to-be-discovered conceptual physics breakthrough, completely separate from a mission to the Moon or Mars.

And in any event, the cost and complexity of human space flight are enormous. In January 2004, President George W. Bush announced a new initiative called "Moon, Mars and Beyond," with the goal of returning humans to space beyond Low Earth Orbit. Important to note, however, is that he didn't allocate any additional funds for the effort. There isn't a Cold War driver or need to prove our ability to navigate and command space anymore. And make no mistake about it--that need, not mere exploratory passion or scientific curiosity, is what drove the enormous funding for the Mercury, Geminii, and Apollo programs.

At the same time, the abilities of robotic explorers and satellite instruments have already advanced light years, so to speak. And they're providing valuable information--right now--about not only Mars, other planets, and the universe, but our own planet and how we can best preserve it long enough to worry about the other stuff.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge fan of the thrills of space travel. I remember watching our black-and-white TV with rapt awe and glee as Neil Armstrong made that one giant leap for mankind. I cheered the triumphant return of the Apollo 13 crew. I wanted to be an astronaut myself, when I was a kid. And while I never made it that far, I recently did get to see the curvature of the Earth from an Air Force U-2 spy plane (space suit and all) which gave me a visceral understanding of how breathtakingly extraordinary it is to be able to leave the planet on which you were born.

But I had a similarly breathtaking reaction when I first saw the images of a star being born in the Eagle Nebula. And a chill ran down my spine when Dr. Mather talked about how strong the evidence is that we aren't alone in the universe. Awe and inspiration can come from many different sources. And in terms of inspirational bang for the buck ... especially in a world where so many other priorities are competing for funding ... virtual explorers like the Mars Rover and the Hubble Space Telescope are hard to beat.