NASA experts fear a billionaire space tourist will accidentally break the Hubble Space Telescope while trying to repair it

It’s been 15 years since NASA’s groundbreaking Hubble Space Telescope was last serviced by astronauts.

And the aging observatory, which has been orbiting our planet in low orbit since 1990, is looking a little worse for wear. Persistent technical problems have forced teams to halt scientific activities time and time again.

That’s why billionaire space tourist Jared Isaacman, who has already orbited Earth in a SpaceX Crew Dragon, has said he is willing to foot the bill for a maintenance mission to refurbish the aging telescope.

But if NPR According to reports, it remains to be seen whether NASA is willing to take up the offer. Emails obtained by the broadcaster show that the agency’s scientists are still weighing the risks and benefits of such a mission. After all, the possibility of causing damage to the telescope has always existed, even when NASA’s Space Shuttle came along during its visits.

“This is a fantastic savings for NASA, but also a very challenging concept for NASA’s legal and procurement departments,” wrote Barbara Grofic, NASA’s astrophysics program manager, in a December 2022 email obtained by NPR.

And a retired Hubble operations expert named Keith Kalinowski, who helped evaluate the plan, wrote that while he favored a “well-planned” mission to operate the orbital outpost, Isaacman’s plan was “unnecessary and risky.”

Current International Space Program program manager Dana Wiegel also wrote that “SpaceX’s view of risk and willingness to accept risk is significantly different than NASA’s,” highlighting the complexity of the construction required to safely launch a reboost and the extreme immaturity of the spacesuit.”

“The other issue is the need for a restart now versus later,” wrote astronaut John Grunsfeld, who performed numerous previous repairs on Hubble. “The opportunity with Polaris may not be there, but NASA can work with Congress and the Administration to apply for funding for a Hubble reboost or enhancement mission, with the help of a commercial partner with NASA as the driving force. [sic] chair, and the maturity of the space systems is higher and lower risk.”

Another astronaut working on Hubble repairs told Scott “Scooter” Altman NPR that he felt incredible relief after the repairs were completed and that “we are not the crew that killed the Hubble Space Telescope, the most incredible scientific instrument ever deployed by humans.”

It’s an unusual collision of decades-old technology that revolutionized the world of astronomy and groundbreaking space exploration, and highlights the tension between the space agency and the fast-growing private space industry, which has made significant progress in recent years, thanks in large part to SpaceX.

Isaacman was the commander of the first all-civilian mission in space, with a crew of four orbiting Earth in a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft in September 2021.

He has been pushing for the maintenance mission for years, arguing that “there is only so much time to plan” in one January tweet. “I’m a little concerned that the ‘clock’ is running out in this game.”

But SpaceX still has a lot to prove. First, the company still needs to prove that astronauts can safely venture outside the company’s Crew Dragon capsule.

At least that part could change quickly. Isaacman has purchased a set of three private space missions as part of the Polaris program, including an upcoming mission called Polaris Dawn, which will see astronauts don SpaceX’s recently announced EVA suit to perform the first-ever private spacewalk later this year.

Meanwhile, since 2022, NASA has been exploring the idea of ​​having a private crew visit Hubble at Isaacman’s expense.

The investigation included Isaacman visiting NASA facilities to discuss what a servicing mission to Hubble would entail.

But despite some initial optimism, Hubble experts expressed concern that SpaceX does not have the expertise or capability to work on the decades-old observatory. Approaching Hubble with its massive solar panels could prove extremely difficult and risky.

SpaceX’s spacecraft also does not have a robotic arm, like NASA’s Space Shuttle, which was used to service Hubble five times between 1993 and 2009. Without an airlock, the entire capsule would have to be depressurized and then repressurized during a spacewalk.

For now, all eyes are on SpaceX and Isaacman, who will attempt the first “commercial EVA,” as he put it earlier this month. “This is the first time that there are no government astronauts undertaking such a mission.”

Fortunately, there is still time. Hubble is still in surprisingly good condition considering its age, and NASA hopes to continue using it well into the 2030s.

More about Hubble: The Hubble has broken down again

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