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Sunday, January 23, 2005

The New York Times > Science > Space & Cosmos > Money to Fix Space Telescope May Be Cut by White House

The New York Times > Science > Space & Cosmos > Money to Fix Space Telescope May Be Cut by White House:
By WARREN E. LEARY

WASHINGTON, Jan. 22 - A much-anticipated service mission to extend the life of the Hubble Space Telescope could be jeopardized by a White House plan to eliminate funding for it from NASA's 2006 budget request, government officials said.

Officials in the Bush administration and in Congress, who asked not to be identified because the budget has not been officially sent to Congress, said NASA was one of the few agencies that would get a proposed budget increase next year. However, a mission to service Hubble, estimated to exceed $1 billion, will not be part of that package, they said.

The aging observatory, considered one of NASA's greatest achievements, could die in orbit by 2007 or 2008 if deteriorating batteries and gyroscopes that aim it are not replaced, experts have concluded. Since its launch in 1990, Hubble has been serviced four times by space shuttle astronauts who replaced worn parts and added new instruments.

Congress approved a $16.2 billion budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for fiscal 2005, a 5 percent increase at a time when most agencies faced cuts. The administration fought for the increase to support President Bush's plan to refocus NASA by sending astronauts back to the moon as a springboard for exploration of Mars and beyond.

Administration officials said Mr. Bush would again propose an increase in NASA's budget for 2006 to support the exploration initiative.

Glenn Mahone, a NASA spokesman, said it would be inappropriate to discuss the proposed budget and any particulars until it was completed and ready to present to Congress on Feb. 7.

The plan to cut money for a Hubble service mission was first reported on Friday by Space News, an industry publication, and its affiliated Web site, Space.com.

House and Senate staff members said they had been hearing rumors for days that the White House had dropped the Hubble service mission from NASA's budget. If this is the case, they said, oversight committees will question such a decision at upcoming hearings on Hubble and the budget. Some wondered whether eliminating the mission could be a political ploy to submit a low budget and force Congress to reinstate the money for the popular program.

Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, a leading Hubble proponent, said in a statement that she would continue to advocate a service mission. "I led the fight to add $300 million to NASA's budget last year for a Hubble servicing mission, and I plan to lead the fight again this year," she said.

The fate of Hubble became a controversy last January when the NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe, said that he had decided against allowing a fifth space shuttle repair mission to the orbiting observatory. Citing safety concerns for astronauts raised by the Columbia disaster, Mr. O'Keefe said the added risks of undertaking the mission could not be justified.

The decision to abandon the telescope resulted in a wave of criticism that surprised NASA. Astronomers, lawmakers and the public pointedly questioned the decision, noting that astronauts on previous missions had safely refurbished the observatory, which continued to make groundbreaking discoveries.

Mr. O'Keefe stood by his decision about a shuttle mission, but the agency began developing a plan to deploy a robot device to do much the same thing. Congress pressured NASA to keep the option of a shuttle mission open while it studied alternate ways to extend Hubble's life.

A panel of experts assembled by the National Academy of Sciences to study the Hubble service issue said in a report issued on Dec. 8 that the space telescope was too valuable to science to be allowed to die in orbit. Concluding that the robotic option posed too many unknown challenges and might not be ready in time, the panel recommended that NASA send astronauts to repair Hubble as previously planned.

Dr. Louis J. Lanzerotti of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the panel chairman, said on Saturday that he was surprised to hear that the Hubble mission might be cut. "The committee concluded that Hubble was one of the outstanding space science achievements of the United States and, with upgrades and servicing, could continue to contribute enormously to science," Dr. Lanzerotti said.

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