Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hubble Humbug

The accolades are accelerating. The bromides are blooming. The cliches are clicking.

The Hubble Space Telescope is repaired, once again focusing press conference speeches on the importance and utility of putting humans in spacesuits on top of high explosives. It is hard not to get caught up in the celebration of the restoration of "Mr. Hubble's" very real capabilities to explore time and space. But take a deep breath and step back for a minute, apply rational thought and evaluation to the means, and you'll begin to see why the former Emperor made the wrong decision, like he did on so many other things, in going forward to the ends.

Let's examine the premise of how we got here. Hubble has provided exceptional observations and given scientists the tools required to answer some of the most basic questions about the universe we live in. Hubble was also designed in the days of naivete, when space shuttles were going to fly 50 times a year and service everything in orbit, so that we would save from never having to build new spacecraft again.

While the flight rates and economics never came to pass, Hubble was serviced four times previously, the first turning into a diving catch making the telescope usable after it was improperly constructed, leaving it almost blind and in need of corrective lenses. Hard to deny the utility of the shuttle with such a state of affairs, isn't it?

Each time a repair mission was mounted, the shuttle's crews were also placed on tall pedestals for exemplifying bravery beyond compare, so that school kids would continue to be drawn towards math and science by the pretty pictures of far off stars, galaxies, and black holes. And there is no denying those stoic astronauts their due. It was, and still is, very dangerous work.

Columbia, following Challenger, opened our eyes to that danger. In recognition of the risks, in a period of calm, reasoned, and thoughtful decision making, a final servicing mission to Hubble was cancelled. The outcries that followed listened to no such reasoning. For a period, robotic servicing alternatives were explored but found to be beyond the state-of-the-art for what was required.

Hubble was to be allowed to live out it's life, allowing resources to be directed towards the next generation James Webb Space Telescope. But the dissent steepened in pitch until the decision maker found his place in history's den of thieves, accused of stealing visual candy from future generations of kids.

But the Emperor changed all of that. His anointment was conditioned on re-instating the besmirched fifth repair mission. Jobs in the State of Maryland had to be saved. The chief scientist pressed hard as well, in ultimately self-serving fashion. "It's worth risking my life to save the Hubble," he proclaimed like a youngster talking about a teddy bear he tightly hugged.

Unfortunately, it is we, the lowly taxpayers, who have suffered once again from these emotional, irrational, and egotistical decisions. Costing approximately $2.5B initially to develop, we did with Hubble what we do with everything else we have developed in our space faring history. We threw away the option to build copies. And in doing so, we created yet another false customer for the shuttle's services.

The KH-11 spy telescopes are close cousins of the Hubble and have been upgraded with each succeeding generation. Build and launch costs are on the order of $1.4B each off the production line. Conservatively, a shuttle repair flight costs $1B each, not including the cost of the telescope upgrades carried aloft. Pick the numbers you want to use, but the bottom line is clear: instead of risking lives and national shuttle assets, we could have been launching brand spanking new telescopes all along without risking a single soul to the surly bonds.

Imagine five telescopes, each with a succeeding generation of capabilities now afforded by the single Hubble in orbit now. Imagine five times the data, five times the discovery, five times the science we are now in receipt of. Instead, we have one telescope, held hostage to an upgrade schedule dictated by the availability of the shuttle. Oh, and a bunch of ticker tape parades and oval office visits.

The same emotional, irrational, egotistical decisions got us into the mess called Constellation. No thought has been given to the needs, the requirements, the purpose of the vehicles being put on paper (we can not yet say they are actually being "developed," for there are no signs of that within Viceroy Hanley's domain). The return on investment has not been considered, but rather ignored. But we will launch humans, again, maybe, perhaps sometime after the middle of the next decade in a crude capsule from 50 years in our past. And they will journey (we cannot say "fly") to an empty Space Station, again built without regard for purpose or in consultation with real customers.

We, the people, must stand up and say, "Wait a minute!" "What am I getting for my investment?" "How should we measure success?" "Does this make sense?" Until we ask these and the other questions, then the success of any space mission, the apparent likes of which we are seeing this week, is in truth little more than a bunch of misdirected Hub-bub.


Mr. X said...

I said the same thing back in 2004 only to face scorn and ridicule from industry professionals. At the time I was enamored with the Hubble Origins Probe proposal, rather than a more literal "Hubble II." Rocketman, your Hubble II suggestion is still quite valid because it wouldn't require much in the way of development bucks. HOP, on the other hand, would be a new-start program subject to cost growth and schedule slip.

Anonymous said...

Well stated and reasoned. One additional point in regard to this repair mission: HST was designed in the late 1970's and launched in 1990. Some of its basic parts have been operating in space for almost 20 years. We spent the money for a Shuttle servicing mission and risked the lives of the crew to service a satellite at the end of its design lifetime. What happens if a 10-cent capacitor arcs the week after Atlantis' return? It's foolish expenditure to upgrade a spacecraft with state-of-the-art instruments only to have some aging part fail and render the whole thing a useless pile of junk.

Sean O'Keefe's original decision to cancel the HST service mission was the correct one.

Anonymous said...

There was a time when distinguished engineers and scientists had sufficient gravitas to be able to sway the political leadership in making such decisions. Unfortunately that has given way to demeaning theatrics (like notes from one's wife) which have degraded the ability of the technical community as a whole to influence such decisions.

And so the political system is left to fend for itself, forcing bad decisions based on local politics. Where are the technical leaders who can help us through this mess?

Anonymous said...

there is value in learning how to rendevous and repair hardware, particularly hardware not designed for in space repair.

and certainly if we weren't repairing HST it would be dead, the battery failures blown fuses dead gyros and bad optics and solar arrays would kill any productivity but that said expendable hubbles would be cheaper but because STS is too damn expensive.

if STS were $100M per flight t would be great.

Anonymous said...

It is amazing how the light of truth shines to you alone while those of us who labored 80+ hours a week on ISS and other programs were left in the dark. What happened to the incredible scientific capabilities we launched? Have they been destroyed by Chinese ASAT?

As for the risk of flying humans on the Shuttle, have you seriously considered the risk of a lunar voyage? Have you seriously considered the issues of aborted launches from the lunar surface? What about all of the other risks that have the crew days from safe return at best?

Space is dangerous and expensive. We will not always agree on the path forward, but you do your reputation no good to denigrate everyone with whom you disagree.

But I will agree with you on this - if we could make better decisions up front we could reap better return on investments. Smaller craft bought in larger quantity offer huge risk reduction opportunities. Pulling another Hubble from inventory and launching it would have been a better answer, but it was not available. So we did what we could with what we had.

Anonymous said...

It truly is a sad era when rational argument is seen as "denigrating" and when opinions are seen as "destructive" instead of a position to be considered. Don't talk to me about the risks until you can clearly define the objectives and the benefits to be accrued. Only then can the value to society be judged sufficiently.