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Hubble Space Telescope
The SM4 cancellation decision is one of the most controversial NASA has ever made, but the mechanics behind that decision have largely been hidden from view. (credit: NASA)

Hubble slips away

Certainly one of the most controversial NASA decisions in recent memory was the January 16, 2004 announcement that the agency had canceled the SM4 shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. The decision triggered a firestorm of negative reaction not only from astronomers, but from members of Congress and the general public, just as the agency was trying to garner support for the new Vision for Space Exploration, unveiled just two days before the SM4 cancellation announcement. NASA was put on the defensive for most of the year, forced to explain in Congressional hearings and other fora why the agency appeared to be abandoning what House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert recently called a “mascot for science.” NASA eventually tried to stem the tide of negative publicity by endorsing a robotic servicing mission, only to decide early this year that such a mission was infeasible.

While NASA has repeatedly explained why it canceled SM4—agency leaders concluded that they could not meet the requirements of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) for a shuttle mission to a destination other the International Space Station in time to mount a Hubble repair mission—the agency has said little about how it reached that decision. At last month’s annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held in Washington, NASA chief historian Steven Dick provided some new insights during a session on Hubble. In a presentation before a standing-room-only audience, Dick described how he had interviewed the key players in the Hubble decision, including former administrator Sean O’Keefe, in an effort to understand the genesis of what he calls “one of the most extraordinary controversies in the history of space science.” What he revealed was that there was less a conscious decision to cancel the servicing mission than a series of events and decisions, one of the consequences of which was the SM4 cancellation.

While NASA has repeatedly explained why it canceled SM4 the agency has said little about how it reached that decision.

Not surprisingly, the first inkling that the SM4 mission might not fly came on February 1, 2003, with the loss of Columbia. Dick noted that Ed Weiler, at the time of the accident NASA’s associate administrator for space science, said he first feared the mission would be canceled when he turned on CNN that morning and saw the breakup of Columbia. “I was certainly worried about it,” Dick recalled Weiler as saying. Despite the accident and the standdown of the shuttle fleet, the SM4 mission remained on the books in August 2003 when a team of scientists working on a transition plan for Hubble and its follow-on, the James Webb Space Telescope, released its final report. (See “Considering Hubble’s fate: a followup”, The Space Review, August 18, 2003.)

However, later that same month the CAIB issued its final report, which contained 15 recommendations for NASA to implement before flying the shuttle again. According to Dick, O’Keefe started to reconsider the viability of the SM4 mission with the release of that report. Beginning in September, O’Keefe recalled, he received periodic assessments of what was required to return the shuttle to flight. “As each mounting month went by, and with every update of the return to flight documents, every one of those reveals that it was harder and harder to accomplish every one of those recommendations to achieve that objective,” Dick noted O’Keefe as saying. “So I [O’Keefe] think that by the late fall or early winter it was pretty apparent that the likelihood of accomplishing all those objectives in time to mount the servicing mission… was becoming more and more remote.”

“The only reason I would say it was tied to the budget,” Isakowitz said of the cancellation decision, “was that the budget helped dictate the timing of when we were going to make a decision.”

Bill Readdy, NASA associate administrator for space flight, had a similar recollection as O’Keefe. While the CAIB report didn’t rule out a shuttle mission to Hubble, Readdy recalled, “the bit was pretty much set in my mind that this was going to be a very, very high bar set to ever go do a Hubble servicing mission.” Readdy, Dick said, was particularly struck by the CAIB’s conclusion that NASA was not a “learning organization”, and thus worried that if the agency pressed ahead with a Hubble servicing mission the implication would be that the agency had not learned from the Columbia accident.

Although the concerns about the viability of SM4 grew, the agency had not taken any concrete steps to cancel the mission as the end of 2003 neared. What finally triggered that decision was planning for the fiscal year 2005 budget proposal, which was nearing completion in the final weeks of 2003. NASA comptroller Steve Isakowitz told Dick that it was during Thanksgiving weekend meetings with O’Keefe and other top NASA officials to finalize the budget proposal that they decided not to include SM4 in the budget because of the growing realization within NASA’s leadership that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to meet the CAIB’s recommendations in time to fly the mission. Isakowitz said that decision was “one of a million other decisions” made that weekend, but that the cost of the mission was not a factor in the cancellation. “The only reason I would say it was tied to the budget,” Isakowitz told Dick, “was that the budget helped dictate the timing of when we were going to make a decision.”

When asked when the final decision on the SM4 cancellation was made, Isakowitz told Dick that it “probably converged around the early part of December.” Dick reported that NASA records showed that on December 2, 2003, Isakowitz briefed NASA’s executive council on the FY2005 budget submission, noting that funding for SM4 was not included in it. O’Keefe told Dick that “every further return to flight meeting confirmed the wisdom of the SM4 cancellation.” Delays that pushed the return to flight from late 2004 into 2005 further cemented into O’Keefe’s mind the conclusion that it would be impossible to carry out a Hubble mission in a timely manner.

Dick said that NASA had planned to announce the SM4 cancellation at the end of January 2004, just before the release of the FY2005 budget proposal, giving the agency enough time to inform all the major parties “in a systematic way.” However, in parallel with—but, he emphasized, separate from—the SM4 decision-making process, of course, was the development of what was to become the Vision for Space Exploration. Dick said that in Congressional briefings the same day the Vision was unveiled, “it came out that the HST SM4 was not in the budget.” This made it into a Washington Post article the next day, albeit buried at the end of the article. This forced NASA to move up the timetable for the SM4 announcement, and O’Keefe and Weiler went to NASA Goddard on the 16th to inform Hubble project staff there, and later the media, of the decision.

As NASA presses ahead with the Vision for Space Exploration, the agency will be faced with similar major decisions in the years to come. It remains to be seen if the SM4 decision will—or should—serve as a model for making important, if potentially unpopular, decisions.

Could this acceleration of the announcement have caught NASA off-guard to the negative reaction it engendered? When later asked if he felt NASA fell behind in dealing with the reaction to the cancellation and never really caught up, Dick concurred. The fact that NASA never issued a press release that day about the decision, and only hastily arranged a media teleconference late that day to discuss the cancellation, adds credence to that conclusion. One wonders, though, if those two weeks really could have made much of a difference. NASA had spent over a decade hyping the Hubble and its scientific discoveries: a few weeks, by comparison, seems an inadequate amount of time for the agency to prepare to cushion the blow of the cancellation decision.

Dick did not address in detail about the process that led NASA to first endorse, only to drop a few months later, a proposal to carry out a robotic repair mission. One can imagine, though, a similar process to the SM4 cancellation as evidence mounted that a robotic mission would be too expensive and could be completed with any reasonable odds of success in time to repair the telescope. (See “Robots and Hubble: a bad idea?”, The Space Review, November 1, 2004). As NASA presses ahead with the Vision for Space Exploration, the agency will be faced with similar major decisions in the years to come. It remains to be seen if the SM4 decision will—or should—serve as a model for making important, if potentially unpopular, decisions.


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