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Successful Hubble Repair Mission Widens Policy Rift at NASA

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009; 3:29 PM

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 of doing what it has just done so dramatically.

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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 on 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 Friday 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 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 faulty assumptions 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 agency is also conducting a $20 million study to see how orbital servicing might be included in future missions.

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. He said the cost is too high.

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

He said it might have been cheaper to launch three or four Hubbles rather than keep fixing and upgrading the one instrument. And he noted that none of the many scientific 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.

To which Leckrone responds: The next big optical telescope, one that might be launched in the early 2020s, should be designed in tandem with the design of the new rockets and crew capsules being built under NASA's new Constellation human spaceflight program.

That initiative is primarily designed to send astronauts both to the International Space Station in low earth orbit and also all the way to the moon and perhaps someday to Mars. But fixing instruments in space is not a significant part of the plan.

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