20 Years Later: Hubble, Humans and the Future of Space Flight


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In addition to marking the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, this week also marks the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope -- the first of NASA's four "great observatories" launched to observe the heavens from the heavens. (The other three are the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, which was deorbited in 2000, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, both of which are still working).

Hubble, of course, is the best-known of the four, since it collects data in the visual range of light waves, giving us the spectacular Eagle Nebula starbirth photos, the Deep Field image of thousands of galaxies hidden in a tiny dark point of space, and a multitude of other awe-inspiring glimpses of the universe beyond our physical reach.

But the Hubble also represents a rare collision of worlds far closer to home, within NASA itself. Because for 20 years, it has been one of the only NASA programs to merge the human space flight side of NASA with the agency's scientific and robotic space flight contingent. The Hubble itself is a scientific instrument that does its work remotely, like any other scientific satellite. But unlike almost all other satellites, it was hand-launched by astronauts from the bay of the Space Shuttle and has been repaired by human astronauts no fewer than five times.

So in the highly segmented world of NASA, is the Hubble a triumph and justification for human space flight? Or proof that we can be equally thrilled, excited and humbled by our robotic explorations in space...and proof of how much more we can learn from non-human voyages and missions?

Dr. Story Musgrave has a unique perspective on the question, because he is, on the one hand, one of the most experienced and longest-serving astronauts in NASA's human space flight program, a veteran of six space missions over the course of a 30-year career. But he also worked on the development of the Hubble from 1975 onward and was one of the lead astronauts on the famous 1993 Hubble repair mission that corrected several early problems with the telescope, including a serious flaw in its primary mirror. And in an interview I did with him in anticipation of the Hubble anniversary, he was very clear about what he thinks NASA's priorities should be.

"Thank God they decided [the Hubble] needed to be fixable by people, because there were 13 early failures, which means you had problems in the basic design, materials, or quality," he said. "But the non-human program is more important to me than the human program."

Why? Because Hubble, Voyager, and other non-human satellites can reach further, address far more complex questions, and therefore have a far more inspiring and significant impact.

"I think [the Hubble] is as good a reason for being in space as there is," Musgrave says. "It's not a very powerful machine, but people are massively excited about it because it's a mirror for who they are. The whole thing about Hubble is, it gets after two existential questions. It doesn't answer them, and those questions will never be answered, but they are: What is the meaning, and what is the hope, of life here on Earth? Hubble is symbolic for a knowledge machine that is potentially able to link cosmology, theology, philosophy and astronomy. It is able to hold a mirror to humanity -- the kind of mirror that says 'What kind of universe is it, and what is our place in it? Who are we, and who should we be?'"

In contrast, Musgrave is sharply critical of the International Space Station, which he calls a "$100 billion mistake."

"[The Space Station] does nothing for nobody and it never has," he says. "The cost of space station is 300 Voyager-class satellites. We could have had multiple Voyagers landed or floating in the atmosphere on every planet and on every moon of every planet. That is what we gave up when we went with a jobs program, which is what the space station is. And that's an ungodly sin. And yes, I'm a human space flight person, but listen to me. That's what we could have offered the public."

But what about the inspiration that the astronaut program offers school children and the public at large? Musgrave scoffs. "If you sent multi-media robotic machines [into space], people would be unbelievably excited about going everywhere out there. And we could have gone everywhere. But we opted to stay in low earth orbit and do a jobs program because we had no imagination."

So what should NASA do next? Would Musgrave have NASA cancel the human space flight program entirely, when the Shuttles retire? Not completely. But he argues that NASA's segmentation into human and non-human space flight is a crippling division that needs to end.

"What needs to be done is to combine the robotic program with the human program. The programs should have been the same all along," he says, "and they should have served one another. I think human space flight needs to be put in partial hibernation. You continue to develop the capability, but send the robots first. They not only are there first to mine materials and show you how to live off the land, they themselves, in their exploration, would raise the question: do we need to send humans and, if so, where do we send them? The robots would pave the way, and answer your questions along the way. But that's not what NASA's doing. We're still talking 'the human program.'"

In that light, how does Musgrave view President Obama's new space policy? He's critical -- but not for the usual reasons people put forth about the importance of NASA centers for jobs, human space flight, the Moon, or Mars. He has concerns about building redundant capability if the commercial sector has to build its own launch and mission control facilities, as well as concerns about the safety and viability of a commercial space effort. "There has never been any money to be made in space except for commercial satellites," he notes, adding that private efforts to master space flight have not fared particularly well, in terms of safety and success, over the years.

But his big critique of Obama's policy is that it lacks what he considers two essential elements for success: specific vision, and a solid project management approach. To Musgrave, the specific goal is unimportant -- there are valid and inspirational reasons we could go back to the Moon, or to an asteroid, or send satellites to other planets or into deep space. All of which could help pave the way for future exploration, answer additional questions about the universe, and help develop "game-changing technologies."

But to achieve any of those things, he said, you have to take the approach NASA made famous in the 1960s, and which successful business program managers implement every day. "You say, here's what I want, here's when I need it, here's the approach, here's the requirement," Musgrave explains. "You put a Statement of Work out there, and you get the most creative people working on it, and you take the best ideas that come from that. That's project management. It's the way you drive new technology. And that's the way you DO something. We're no longer at the point where you do technology for technology's sake and then figure out how to apply it."

Musgrave is not a young man, and he's well aware of the obstacles to effecting change in an organization that involves as many Congressional interests and individual fiefdoms as NASA does. He understands Congressional resistance to any changes that might affect jobs back home, as well as how entrenched the different camps at NASA are. Indeed, he says it's a "valid question" whether the operational structure and approach of NASA could even be changed at this point without disbanding the organization as it now stands and rebuilding a new research institution from scratch.

But Musgrave believes it still could happen. "If you have a strong enough leader with an artistic vision of where we go next," he says, "the public is going to get behind it. Congress is not going to give you a good space program. You have to create it and sell it to the public, and the public forces it to happen. And you've got to do that in terms of good project management with a specific and achievable goal and a specific timeline, like we did in the 1960s." Even if, he says, the goal has to be less costly, because the funds are more precious now.

I've written six books for NASA and conducted hundreds of interviews with NASA managers, astronauts, employees, researchers, scientists and contractors in the course of researching those and other writing projects. And while the issues, choices, and challenges are complex, many of Musgrave's thoughts and critiques resonate with what I've heard from other sources. In any event, it's food for thought, as the Hubble marks 20 years in space, and we start looking at what and where we explore next, and how we go about it.