The last fix

By Daniel Holz | May 25, 2009 9:38 am

The space shuttle Atlantis made a safe landing yesterday morning, capping the end to a truly historic mission. Over the past two weeks the shuttle crew rendezvoused with the Hubble Space Telescope, performed five space walks, fixed two failing instruments (the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph), installed two new instruments (the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and the Wide Field Camera 3), did a host of other repairs and refurbishment, and then released a completely transformed telescope.
Space shuttle Atlantis, Hubble Space Telescope, and the Earth
We have a tendency to forget just how remarkable this is. It is a highly non-trivial endeavor to send seven people into space (and get them back down safely). It is nothing short of miraculous to have them spend over 30 hours space “walking”, performing a major overhaul of an aging instrument (12 meters by 4 meters, weighing over 13 tons [it’s “weightless” in space, of course; though it might have some inertia if you tried to move it]). You’ve got bulky gloves on, you can’t hear anything, you’re floating around with no balance, and you really, really don’t want anything to go wrong. Even something as trivial as a sticky bolt can derail months of preparation and millions of dollars of investment. There is a very slim margin for error.

The Atlantis mission is one of the finest examples of what excites people about manned space flight. It was an incredible success, from start to finish. And we can hope for a decade of mind-blowing science to prove it. It helps that Hubble is perhaps the most remarkable scientific instrument ever built. (Okay, the LHC is pretty cool too, but it doesn’t produce pretty pictures. And it isn’t working yet.) Without a doubt, the fact that Hubble was “serviceable” has played a large role in its success. With its initially flawed optics, Hubble would have been a catastrophic failure. It took a servicing mission to fix it, and provide us with an unparalleled scientific instrument. And now it is as if we have launched a brand new, state-of-the-art Hubble. These appear to be strong arguments in favor of manned maintenance of space telescopes.

But this mission is historic for another reason. It is likely to be the last time in our lives that human beings go to space to “fix” an orbiting scientific instrument. [Granted, prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.] It is incredibly expensive to send human beings up to fiddle on stuff in space. Furthermore, Hubble was placed in low-Earth orbit (600 kilometers up) to facilitate these sorts of repairs, which is a sub-optimal location for a telescope. The successor to Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will be placed 1.5 million kilometers away at Lagrange point 2 (WMAP is already there, and Planck and Herschel are on their way). It will be a very long time before humans venture out that far from Earth. JWST is not being designed to be repaired or upgraded; it’s a one-shot deal. The additional costs of sending humans into space far outweigh the benefits. If you want to know whether there’s water on Mars, you send a rover. You do not spend many orders of magnitude more to send a human to dig with a shovel. Although the space shuttle is undeniably cool, and this latest Atlantis mission was astounding, manned space flight is not the economical way to do science.

With the successful landing of Atlantis we celebrate a transformed Hubble telescope. And we mark the end of the current era of human beings tinkering with telescopes in space.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Ginger Yellow

    “Okay, the LHC is pretty cool too, but it doesn’t produce pretty pictures. ”

    I beg to differ.

  • Julianne

    Daniel — There may wind up being a telescope on the moon at some point, which could be repaired by people. But, short term, yeah, this is it.

  • tacitus

    Absolutely, astronomy stands to benefit greatly from a sustained human presence on the Moon.

  • mk

    How much did it cost to build the Hubble?
    How much did it cost to launch it and put it in orbit?
    How much did it cost to repair it the first time?
    How much the second time?

  • Ellipsis

    But would it have been cheaper, though, to have launched 5 new (but not repairable) Hubbles than have the 5 servicing missions? It certainly seems counterintuitive, but the answer may be that it would have been.

  • mathmanprime

    Telescope on the moon? Sure, we could do it, it would only cost about 10x as much as an orbiting ‘scope and 100x as much if you want people to service it. The thing about the moon is uh, you sorta have to land SLOWLY, ya know?

  • mathmanprime

    mk: the short answer for the total cost of Hubble during its life is that no one knows, primarily because NASA doesn’t want anyone to know how much a shuttle mission really costs, even if it’s just to go into LEO and wave out the window. We can estimate things though at around $10 Billion on the low end and about double that on the high end. So, you’re correct, it would have been less expensive (and incredibly less dangerous) to launch 5 different Hubbles, none of them from manned vehicles. Of course, there were very, very few reasons that could justify the cost of the shuttle fleet other than launching and servicing Hubble (and other satellites, until that was, correctly, deemed too dangerous and too expensive) and building the incredibly useless ISS.

  • graviton383

    I am looking forward to MANY pretty pictures from both ATLAS & CMS late this Fall…

  • NIM

    All these people complaining about the cost of humans in space and how useless the ISS is are just secretly jealous that they don’t get to be astronauts.

  • Count Iblis

    You can’t operatate something similar to the Paranal Observatory from space. It can be operated from the Moon.

  • mathmanprime

    Count Ibis: well, as they say, not exactly. The utility of the VLT as an interferometer is a very small part of it’s overall effectiveness (I consider the VLT to be the best of all ground-based observatories in terms of the range of science it does and the productivity of its instruments).
    Free-flying interferometers in space, with baselines of 10s of kilometers or far more, will far outclass the VLT interferometer. The aperture of the JWST (has there ever been a WORSE name chosen for a major observatory?) almost matches that of a single VLT ‘scope and its location will make it far more productive (for the mostly IR science it’s been designed for).
    NIM, have you actually MET any astronauts? I have, and though there are certainly exceptions, I’ve mostly been underwhelmed (I could tell a story about a particularly bad commencement address by a very unfortunate astronaut, but I’ll be good). They’re mostly roughly as interesting as any really good engineer (read into that what you will). They have a dangerous, glamorous, and oh so tedious job. I frankly couldn’t imagine training for YEARS for each and every mission, with the likelihood being that you’ll actually fly a small integer number of times (at best). The recent crew certainly did do a herculean job, and I salute their skill and courage . Better planning in the 70’s and 80’s would have meant that they wouldn’t have had to risk their lives on this mission, however.

  • amphiox

    The only worthwhile reason to send humans into space is with the intent of colonizing space.

    And the reason to colonize space is to ensure the long term (or at least longer term) survival of the human species.

    Any manned mission that does not contribute in some way to the ultimate establishment of a permanent and self-sustaining space colony (one that would survive on its own even if earth were obliterated the next day by an asteroid, say), either by obtaining required experimental observations, or building infrastructure, or actually putting people in place, is a waste of money, as machines can do any and all other goals cheaper and better.

  • Anne

    I’m not sure I agree about even the short-term absence of manned servicing missions: there was at least one scheme to bolt an X-ray telescope to the ISS, and that would have been more or less easy to go out and tinker with. The economics of sending someone up to tinker with a telescope change when that someone is already up there.

    Now, if you want to argue that there’s no economic reason to have the ISS, well, I can’t really argue with you, but the fact is that we do have it, and we are committed to having people in it, so why not let some of them go outside and tinker with a telescope? Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a particularly good place to put an X-ray telescope, and that proposal seems not to have been a success.

  • Meredith

    I would love nothing more than to be an astronaut who travels to the moon to help establish or refurbish a telescope there!!

    @NIM: well said. :)

  • Tszap

    “you’ll actually fly a small integer number of times (at best). ”

    …and a non-integer number of times at worst.

  • James


  • Dr Fish

    @GingerYellow: those are indeed pretty pictures *of* the LHC.

    They’re just not *by* the LHC…

  • Brian Mingus

    I predict that we will service Hubble again.


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