I'll admit the title is a bit strange, but strange is probably the word of the day. For those who haven't been following the Hubble story, the Senate has now weighed into the fray wanting explanations from NASA as to what it plans to do with the telescope given all the public outcry.
by Joe Latrell
Well, there is a good answer for what to do with the most beloved piece of space hardware since the shuttle rolled out of the hangar back in the 1970's. Call it back to the future, sort of.
Let's start with a little bit of history. When Hubble was lifted to the heavens and the space shuttle was still going to live up to its promise of cheap, safe access to space, NASA had the grand idea that they would be bringing the bus-sized telescope back to earth to hang in a museum (the Smithsonian to be precise). This would let millions of people every year gaze upon the great giant with the awe and respect it deserves.
Today however, the space shuttle is a 'dangerous machine', and we can't have our astronauts risking their lives just to bring back a big bucket of bolts for memorabilia's sake, can we? After all, does anyone really care? NASA, it seems, underestimated the outcry and before anyone could blink, they were the bad guy in this little melodrama. Everyone appears to have an opinion of what to do with the telescope.
There are some 29 proposals for keeping Hubble alive and well. Some of these no doubt use robotics to perform some rather delicate surgery to keep the bird soaring. A few of these will use robotics to park Hubble in a higher orbit until we can figure out what to do with it. Fewer still will have some system to guide it gently to earth, to be obliterated (in a controlled manner) as it re-enters our atmosphere.
So what are the options? The first is to perform the manned recovery as planned with a cost of about $1 Billion. It can go higher if we toss in a life extension mission to about $2 Billion. The second involves robots and will cost around $500 Million to $1 Billion depending on whom you ask. But could we create a third option? Can we save the Hubble and look like a Hero too? We can. And here it is.
Turn the Hubble into a museum.
"Wait!" You say, "Bringing it back is out of the question. The risk is too great." And I agree. But I didn't say anything about bringing it back either.
The plan is this: Create a museum/hotel in space that follows behind the Hubble telescope, say 1500 ft or so. The orbital inclination at 28.5 degrees and the altitude (593 Km) is an easily accessible and pretty desirable location. It would not be too difficult to insert a small space station capable of holding 3-4 persons into this space.
Capsule based spacecraft could dock with this station bringing all the supplies for three guests and a pilot/concierge. You need someone to pamper the guests during their stay and fly them with transportation to orbit and back.
Think of this as a vacation. A six-day trip to a space hotel: two days to get there is reasonable. Two days to look at earth and enjoy the view. Add in a side trip to take a close-up tour of the most beloved telescope in all time using some sort of a sled or the transport capsule itself.
Then finish it off with a rousing trip back to earth in a grand and exciting manner. Four trips a year with one servicing trip (re-supply, orbit boosting, Hubble maintenance, etc.) is a conceivable routine.
Whether or not scientific research can still be done is another issue with a space station so close. But then again at that point science is not what it will be about. Tourism will be the name of the game. Can you imagine someone showing you a picture they took of the Hubble while out on a one-week trip to space?
Can you imagine yourself showing pictures you took to your friends? Admittedly this will be expensive to start with, but all prices do tend to drop (relative costs), and this could be the impetuous that starts the fall.
"Hogwash. This is a pipe dream. A fantasy.", you retort. But the systems are in development now and could be ready before Hubble is scheduled to come down. Let's look at them.
A small space station can be constructed using the inflatable designs of the Trans-Hab. Bigelow Aerospace is developing commercial applications for these types of structures now. A two-component space station with more living space than the current ISS can be sent to space in as little as three flights. It would take two flights for the modules and one for power systems, etc. It can be made to be tele-assembled or self-assembled given today's technology.
A capsule capable of sending four people to space can be designed, built and tested within 4 years if the commitment were to be made. Man rating it for launches would take time and there would be some inherent risk to passengers, but anyone who gets into a rocket ad thinks it is not dangerous should probably not be going on these flights. There is a risk here, just like you were skydiving. Read the fine print before going, your mileage may vary, etc, etc.
The Falcon V is in the design/development stage and could be ready in a few years to launch these components and the capsule flights. The Falcon V is projected to be capable of lifting 3,000 Kg to that orbit.
The masses of these items can be optimized (without cutting safety) for a system of this type. If the Falcon V cannot perform these duties, then perhaps other carriers can. The location of Hubble makes it accessible from just about any launch complex on earth (except for Russia's). We have Delta and Atlas rockets that need payload, right?
The cost for all of this should be less than the $1 Billion for the whole system. Designing, building and launching the entire complex could fit into that kind of budget with a bit a room to spare. Flights would probably cost around $10 to $15 Million depending on the actual construction costs.
That sounds kind of pricey but a trip to the ISS costs more than that and you really can't touch anything. This is a hands on experience to see one of the greatest artifacts of the space age. People will pay money to do this.
Rather than see a national treasure go to waste, and to belay the fears of the public that we are destroying a great piece of history, we should seize upon this as an opportunity. Admittedly the science value of Hubble will diminish with the launch and successful deployment of the Webb Telescope, but until then, we can plan on how best to preserve a piece of our culture, the space culture, for our future generations - then we must act on them.
Joe Latrell is founder of Beyond-Earth Enterprises - a commercial space development company in Colorado Springs
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The Race To Decode The Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image
New York - Mar 09, 2004
Astrophysicists from the American Museum of Natural History, Columbia University, and Stony Brook University charged out of the research gates today to kick off Science Live: The Race to Decode the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image, a six-day event offering the public an unprecedented opportunity to watch competitive science in action.
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