NASA Scientist Says Agency ‘Abandons' Repair Capability

A Smithsonian Institution image details the future Orion spacecraft, which won't have the space shuttle's versatility.
A Smithsonian Institution image details the future Orion spacecraft, which won't have the space shuttle's versatility. (By Eric Long -- National Air And Space Museum)
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 23, 2009

NASA's triumphant mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope this week has cracked open a policy rift within the space agency, with a top NASA scientist saying that the United States is on the way to losing the capability to do what it has just done so dramatically.

David Leckrone, the senior project scientist for the Hubble, said NASA's new strategy for the post-space-shuttle era does not include servicing scientific instruments in space, and he fears that vast amounts of accumulated knowledge and technical expertise will quickly vanish.

"It just makes me want to cry to think that this is the end of it," Leckrone said at a news conference earlier this week. "There is no person out there, there is no leadership out there, there is no vision out there to pick up the baton that we're about to hand off and carry it forward."

His words, streamed around the planet via the NASA Web site, ruffled the agency and incited rebuttals from headquarters. But Leckrone, who plans to retire in October, is not backing down, and yesterday he reiterated his case.

"I feel like NASA's doing what it's done before -- it comes up with a great capability and, for political or budgetary reasons or whatever, it abandons it," Leckrone told The Washington Post. He added: "I've been besieged by NASA people thanking me for saying what they think needed to be said."

NASA released a statement saying Leckrone's comments reflect a faulty assumption about the design of the next generation of spacecraft. "There is nothing about the architecture that would preclude satellite rescue work," said NASA spokesman Grey Hautaluoma.

The dispute has created a rift between Leckrone and the head of space science at NASA, Edward Weiler. The two scientists have devoted much of their long NASA careers to the Hubble -- they hugged after the successful shuttle launch last week in Florida -- but Weiler, from his perch at agency headquarters, has a dim view of sending astronauts to fix things in space.

"Servicing was great on Hubble, but it cost a few bucks," Weiler said. "The Hubble program has cost about $10 billion."

He said the agency is conducting a $20 million study to see how orbital servicing might be included in future missions. But he noted that none of the many instruments currently in orbit, other than the Hubble, were designed to be serviced.

"What are you going to service? There's nothing up there that's serviceable," Weiler said.

Leckrone responded that the shuttle and the Hubble were designed with each other in mind. That could be the template for the next generation of spacecraft and orbiting instruments, he said. For example, the next big optical telescope, which might be launched in the early 2020s, should be designed with servicing in mind.

This policy dispute reflects deeper questions over what, exactly, is the purpose of human spaceflight. NASA is in the midst of a difficult and awkward transition as it retires the shuttle and changes its sights. The Constellation initiative promises to send astronauts to the international space station in low Earth orbit, but the real target is the moon -- and perhaps Mars at some point down the road. NASA's new strategy doesn't envision playing Mr. Goodwrench with fancy telescopes, even one as beloved as Hubble.

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