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NASA Plans to Bring Down 'Dying' Hubble Telescope

2 hours, 43 minutes ago Top Stories - Reuters

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The aging Hubble Space Telescope -- a path-breaking scientific instrument whose eye-catching images have won fans around the world -- would die in orbit under the 2006 budget for NASA proposed on Monday.

The U.S. space agency's total budget would rise 2.4 percent over 2005 to about $16.5 billion, but only $93 million would be spent on Hubble, with $75 million of that aimed at bringing the observatory down to Earth safely, NASA's comptroller said.

While NASA's budget is only a tiny slice of the overall $2.5 trillion requested for the entire government by the White House for fiscal 2006, it is likely to get close scrutiny in Congress and from the 15 nations that are partners with the United States in the International Space Station.

"Hubble is a spacecraft that is dying," Comptroller Steve Isakowitz said at a briefing in advance of the budget's release. "We have decided that the risks associated with the Hubble servicing at this time don't merit going forward."

Isakowitz said NASA's top priorities include returning the grounded space shuttle fleet to flight, completing construction of the space station and developing a new vehicle to replace the shuttle.

In any event, he said, "We have no plans to pursue a Hubble servicing mission by use of the shuttle."


Hubble's fate has been in doubt since January 2004, when President Bush announced an ambitious plan for human space exploration, including a return to the moon and eventually a human mission to Mars.

Days after the announcement, NASA chief Sean O'Keefe canceled a planned shuttle mission to replace Hubble's fading batteries and its stabilizing gyroscopes. In the aftermath of the fatal Feb. 1, 2003, shuttle Columbia accident, a shuttle repair flight to Hubble was simply too risky, O'Keefe said.

A public outcry prompted a reconsideration, and various life-extending scenarios were suggested, including a robotic repair mission, but an expert scientific panel agreed that shuttle astronauts would do a better job.

Hubble was scheduled to have a shuttle repair-and-upgrade mission -- the fifth for the 14-year-old telescope -- last year, but with all shuttles grounded, that was impossible. Experts differ on how long the telescope can continue to operate without being fixed.

However, Hubble's boosters note that each previous repair flight has extended the craft's life span and added to the amount of scientific work it has been able to perform.

And possibly because of its popularity with the public, it has become a favorite with some on Capitol Hill.

"I would dearly love to save the telescope," Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (news, bio, voting record), a New York Republican who chairs the House Science Committee, said last week. "It has outperformed everyone's fondest hopes and has become a kind of mascot for science, maybe even for our planet. One can't help but root for it." :D

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