Thirty-three years ago today, I found myself once again in Florida wondering if I’d ever see a space shuttle launch. Despite making several long-haul trips to Kennedy Space Center, the temperamental technological complexity of the Space Transportation System had rewarded me with nothing but disappointment.
On this trip, three days earlier, I’d once again stood on the turf of the press site at KSC, anxiously watching the famed countdown clock descend to just four minutes before Discovery was due to loft the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit on mission STS-31. And that was the moment when the clock froze, technicians discovering a faulty valve in an auxiliary power unit.
STS-31 flight crew logo reflecting Discovery’s precious cargo, the
Hubble Space Telescope. Image: NASA
Two weeks later, on April 24, 1990, I was back in the shadow of the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, the countdown clock again making its agonizing journey down to main engine start and the moment of ascension when the Solid Rocket Boosters kicked in. We sailed past the four-minute mark, down to one minute, watching each second pass, 33, 32, 31… Wait, still 31? The clock is stopped at 31? A recalcitrant valve was the culprit this time, but the issue was quickly resolved. The countdown resumed, Discovery came alive with a surge upwards at zero, and I witnessed one of the greatest aerospace sights I could possibly imagine.
My view from the Kennedy Space Center press site as Discovery
hauls the Hubble Space Telescope “uphill” into orbit. Recorded, of course, on
film. Photo: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions
Though I returned to KSC numerous times over the decades that followed, and covered STS-135 Atlantis as that mission brought the Space Shuttle program to a close, I remain envious of my fellow media members for whom witnessing spaceflight is a regular occurrence.
Still, it was a privilege to attend the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, a payload that would have a seismic impact upon astronomy and our understanding of the vast realms that surround our solar system.
But now, with the successful launch and 2022 implementation of the new James Webb Space Telescope, the question becomes: what now for Hubble?
The Hubble Space Telescope at work, photographed May 19, 2009 –
the last time the telescope had visitors. Photo: NASA
Already the subject of several technically challenging servicing missions – most recently in 2009 – Hubble is confronting the spacecraft mortality that most objects in orbit inevitably confront. Though Hubble will continue to contribute to science into the 2030s, the telescope’s orbit is slowly decaying.
In 2017 Sierra Nevada Corporation proposed utilization of their Dream Chaser “space plane,” to be launched by an Atlas V and then returning to Earth to a gliding landing, much like the Space Shuttle. In between, a crew would service Hubble and prepare it for a renewed lifespan.
But it wasn’t until September 22, 2022, that concrete action was taken. On that date, NASA and SpaceX, in a partnership with its manned mission Polaris Program, announced a Space Act Agreement to look into the feasibility of using SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft “to boost the agency’s Hubble Space Telescope into a higher orbit with the Dragon spacecraft, at no cost to the government.” NASA was quick to caution in its release, “There are no plans for NASA to conduct or fund a servicing mission or compete this opportunity; the study is designed to help the agency understand the commercial possibilities.”
It was envisioned that gathering technical data and analyzing all aspects of this proposal to determine “whether it would be possible to safely rendezvous, dock, and move the telescope into a more stable orbit” would take roughly six months of study. Which means that at any time now, we could hear the results of this initial effort.
Although inevitably NASA will some day face the challenges of deorbiting or disposing of Hubble, if that final chapter can be held off for an additional period of decades in the name of science, the legacy of the Hubble Space Telescope will become even more remarkable.