Go watch Hubble’s Amazing Rescue.

Seeing as I’ve not posted for three days I thought I should get something up here, but I haven’t had much to say in part because my shift at work the past two days has been canceled and my usual web browsing routine has been altered as a result. One thing I did stumble upon last night was a Nova special on PBS called Hubble’s Amazing Rescue that I thought was worth sharing. Here’s the show description:

The best-known scientific instrument in history was dying. After nearly 20 years in space and hundreds of thousands of spectacular images, the Hubble Space Telescope’s gyroscopes and sensors were failing, its batteries running down, and some of its instruments were already dead. The only hope to save Hubble was a mission so dangerous that in 2004 NASA cancelled it because it was considered too risky.

Scientists and the general public alike stubbornly refused to abandon the telescope, and a new NASA administrator revived the mission. This program takes viewers behind the scenes on a riveting journey with the team of astronauts and engineers charged with saving the famous “orbiting observatory” against all odds.

Hubble had been serviced four times before, including the famous 1993 repair mission that had corrected its blurred vision. But all previous missions had involved replacements, not actual repairs. Astronauts undid latches, removed a balky module, and replaced it with a new one. This mission would be different. Two of Hubble’s instruments—a camera and a spectrograph—had died, and no replacements existed. To revive them, astronauts would attempt procedures never before tried in space: opening up electronic assemblies, getting “into the guts,” and performing delicate tasks previously thought impossible.

I remember being disappointed when I heard they weren’t going to fix the Hubble and then elated when the decision was reversed. And boy was it worth it. Some of the pictures from the newly restored Hubble are absolutely stunning and the story of how they fixed the Hubble is equally amazing. You can watch it online for free at the official website.

14 thoughts on “Go watch Hubble’s Amazing Rescue.

  1. Actually, it’s not worth it. They could have more and better instruments up there for the same price if they weren’t so desperate to find jobs for astronauts. Serviceable satellites end up costing much more than the non-serviceable kind, the cost of satellites being designed to be serviceable by people in space suits being significant onto itself.

    While I’m sure we can all live our fantasies of space travel through seeing astronauts go up there time and again, it is very hard to find reasoned justification for manned space flight. Especially so in the 21th century when robots can do a mans work up in space anytime for one tenth of the cost.

  2. For exploration of other planets and many other mission types I fully agree with you, but I don’t think we have any robots intelligent enough to handle the problems that crop up during repairs such as this one.

    Watch the film and see what kind of trouble they ran into and how they ended up dealing with them. Some of these repairs had never been attempted by humans before let alone robots.

  3. It was indeed a very cool episode, Les.

    Y’know, Flaky, saving money isn’t the end all, be all of existence.  A robot could not have fixed the Hubble – only a human could have.  What the hell do you care what the US spends its tax dollars on anyway?

    Damn Europeans – all the adventurous types emigrated or died.

  4. Sorry, if I came off a bit cranky. (And couldn’t watch the video as it’s apparently not ‘available in [my] region’.) Anyways, the point is that the cost of being able to repair something like the Hubble is not worth it, on average, when you could just send another piece into orbit and let the old one fall down. Hubble had to be designed so that it could be repaired by astronauts, at a cost. Equipment that is not designed to be serviceable is much cheaper (even relatively small reduction in mass amounts to great savings in sending stuff to orbit, among other costs).

    As for my interest in US tax dollars, I am greatly saddened by the fact that ESA is a third rank player at best. And as we are facing more and more problems down here on Earth, it’s becoming harder to justify any expenses towards space exploration at all to the general public, regardless of who pays for it, so it makes sense to minimize the cost/benefit ratio.

    (BTW, I’m really looking forward to the ‘Dawn’ Ceres encounter in 2015.)

  5. It’s a lot cheaper and easier to maintain existing satellites given the constraints of how the US government spends money. Sending up a new device every time like they’re disposable fails to acknowledge the realities of government contracting. The inefficiency that most people rail upon when directly comparing the most efficient private agencies and the government is mostly an invisible surcharge to account for risk and oversight. That’s non-negotiable and irrelevant to the mass of the device entirely.

    If we did it your way then we’d be paying for the inherent risk of bidding for government contracts many times over, launch risk (where X percentage of launches just screws up and blows up making an investment disappear), and rather than having a dozen employees involved in overseeing and auditing a single contract for fraud and compliance you’d end up with hundreds. The cost of the satellite that stays up there for decades can be costed out over those decades too, at which point the cost becomes minimal versus value over time, even if you have new contracts to service the old equipment.

    As for the employee of astronauts, I’ve heard that it’s not really that much more than some of the Special Forces guys, though I’ve got no way or inclination to chase down a cost comparison. You get a lot more out of an astronaut than some Delta operative though, because you can guarantee a need for the astronauts as satellites hit their maintenance schedules while the Deltas and SEAL teams might do nothing but train in very expensive ways for long periods of time without any real call for the degree of expertise you’re paying for.

  6. Pure research, like the Hubble project, is one of the few human endeavors that actually benefit all of humanity. The new knowledge and skills we gain in such projects become applicable to many other human experiences, such as surgical techniques. And, I would much rather cheer on a team of astronauts than a team of Seals on a mission to destroy other humans and property. By and large, a far more rewarding experience, thank you.  cheese

    And, Les, thanks for the link!

  7. I’m doubtful about your concerns regarding contract bidding. The amount of contracts might not even increase, if satellites are allowed to fail more often, since the missions to fix the satellites take quite a lot of resources themselves.

    Controlling the risk of failure would actually help bring down the expenses. Manned missions are planned with the premise that a total failure is not an option, that at the very least the astronauts have to come back alive, but you can put a price on failure of any unmanned mission and optimize the acceptable success rate for maximal yield per dollar.

  8. That’s nice that you’re doubtful, but my current area of professional expertise is in government acquisitions. The peanut gallery is more than welcome to chip in, but usually they’re all wrong because they’ve got wonky, ill-made assumptions on how and why things work the way they do in US government spending. Hell, just the percentage deployment of small business allocations and that bidding process is enough to remove any nonsensical notions about multiplying the number of executed contracts to perform the same job.

    Since you’re an expert though, how do you buy things for the US government in Finland? I wasn’t really aware that the Finns had any significant manned space experience to compare things with, nor much unmanned, but I’m always interested in learning the different regulatory hassles that people in other countries don’t have in running their own government spending programs. I assume you work for the European Space Agency and don’t have these issues in your workplace when buying and launching satellites?

  9. MisterMook, I’m sure your expertize in space related government acquisitions is unparalleled and I do not doubt that the overhead on any government contract isn’t hideous. While I cannot claim such expertize myself (don’t work for ESA or on any Finnish space research programs and aside from our president hogging NASA astronauts for herself on grounds of their Finnish ancestry, Finland doesn’t get much involved in manned space flights), I remain sceptical of the idea that somehow the overall overhead of government acquisitions is smaller on manned missions or that the total number of contracts would necessarily increase by that much. In any case, the point is moot as the replacement for the shuttle, the Orion craft, doesn’t appear be able to perform this sort of missions, which leads back to my original point of questioning the value of manned missions altogether.

    I think I’ve made enough posts on this thread now, so I’ll refrain from any further comment.

  10. I do not doubt that the overhead on any government contract isn’t hideous.

    The amount of contracts might not even increase, if satellites are allowed to fail more often, since the missions to fix the satellites take quite a lot of resources themselves.

    You’re not making rational assumptions. If the satellites are designed to fail more often, then you’re having to perform more contracts. You’re not going to successful arrange a US government contract lasting longer than two years because of budgetary cycles for your satellites, so each new satellite has to be performed separately. You’re not going to assume the lift costs and risks of shooting satellites up in cycles of less than 2 years. You’re not going to send up any instruments of any delicacy or precision on a planned obsolescence orbital journey either, because inevitably you’d have a failure in expensive instrumentation like occurred with the Hubble (except you wouldn’t have a remedy for it, you’d simply be without access to the instrument for several years and have to stall whatever programs were dependent on the device until the next one was up.)

    Also, satellites are enormously expensive. While the costs for small satellites has indeed gone down in the last several decades, there’s still a lot of satellites that range in the several tons of mass range. Spacecraft often cost more than $200,000 per kilogram and can reach $1 million per kilogram with delivery-to-space costs included. Space Shuttle launches cost, in the most reasonable estimate, about $45-60 million dollars per to-orbit, minus experiment and mission costs. That’s what returning safely from orbit saves you, and if you can extend the lifetime of several tons of satellite you’ve got up there that costs you nearly a billion dollars to put in place and that has unique engineering, then I don’t see what the problem is. I certainly don’t understand your ill-prepared logic on cost savings.

    Or to put it another way, thanks so much for sharing your opinion on what you don’t know anything about and failed to do any research on or considering before you posted.

  11. MisterMook, I appologize for breaking my word not to comment, but I can hardly let it pass that you accuse me of voicing an unreasoned and an unresearched opinion, while you are guilty of the same: Your numbers price a 1000kg satellite launch to cost around 800 million dollars, but the shuttle miraculously drops this cost down to $60M due to safe return (of what? the crew? I never argued against reusable vehicles). Btw, the $60M cost is only the cost of consumables of the flight itself. True cost would incorporate other expenses from the program, the number being somewhere between $60M and $1.3B per mission, probably being closer to the higher end. There are other points, which I won’t go into. The cost saving due to non-serviceability in particular is one that would deserve a lengthier discussion and is something that I probably would not be able to definitively demonstrate as I have neither the resources nor access to relevant data. However, the two priciples are simple and sound: Reduce costs by omitting an expensive design constraint, in this case safe serviceability in space by humans. And reduce costs by using cheaper components and designs in exchange for slightly increased probability of failure. (Perhaps you are right and the latter optimization is made entirely impossible by bureaucracy. I remain sceptical. ) Admittedly, I cannot tell if this latter principle might have to work in reverse (more durable satellites for slightly increased cost).

    The idea that shuttle flights and manned flights are wasteful is not mine, I regret if I’ve given that impression. Here’s a link on the subject: http://www.space.com/news/shuttle_cost_050211.html. Google will provide more.

    Also, I was mistaken to say that the Constellation program would not be doing repairs in space. It is even possible, though unlikely, that they might do future repairs on Hubble.

    I appologize if I’ve offended anyone and I admit that my posts were rash, though I hope I’ve managed to entertain at least someone. I’ll do my best to restrain myself from continuting on this subject.

  12. No one has brought up the fact that orbital paths are getting crowded with defunct stuff as it is.

    Or, that regradless of planning, mistakes ARE made in “planned re-entry”.

    I saw the eopside and was quite impressed. And happy that, at least a in a corner of our media,excellence is celebrated!

    hell, I go and check the Mars rover site about once a week! now, talk about amazing stuff-those things are incredible! And, we ALL benefit from what is learned in manned and unmanned space exploration…..just the flash storage involved in the Rovers has moved us forward…

  13. Just for the record, the original cost estimate for the Hubble Space Telescope when the budget was approved by Congress in 1977 (which is almost 10 years after the initial design process was started in 1968) was $400 million. That actually led to a scaling down of the original project as the funding was not as much as they had been hoping for and it came too late to meet the original launch date in 1979 so they pushed the launch date back to 1983. By the time the Hubble was actually put into orbit in 1990, delayed because of, among other things, the Challenger explosion in early 1986 (Hubble had been pushed back to later that same year), the final cost was around $1.5 billion. Part of that was the need to keep its parts stored in a clean room during the years the shuttle fleet was grounded at a cost of $6 million a month. When you add in the cost of ground equipment, annual operating expenses for the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, planning and development of shuttle servicing missions and other factors, the total cost of the telescope project was expected to reach $2.35 billion by the end of the first year of operation. It was one of the most expensive civilian science payloads ever launched and it had an expected life span of 15 years.

    Almost immediately there was a problem. An undetected flaw in the main mirror was ruining the images Hubble was sending back leaving them blurry and all but useless. Hubble’s other detectors were working just fine and there still would’ve been useful data, but none of the astonishing pictures Hubble is known for. NASA’s credibility took a big hit over it and had they not planned from the beginning to make parts of Hubble serviceable in space—originally they wanted to make it so it could hauled back into the space shuttle and brought back down to earth but had to scale that idea back—the Hubble would’ve ended up a $1.5 billion partially blind boondoggle.

    Keeping in mind that planning on the original space telescope was started in 1968 and the final result wasn’t in space until 1990, if we went the route that Flaky is suggesting we’d have to have multiple concurrent design teams working on new replacement space telescopes if we wanted to have any hope of a replacement being ready in time for the retirement of a previous telescope. If there are any flaws that prevent a particular replacement from functioning at full capacity you’re then without said functionality until the next telescope is ready in five, ten, fifteen, or however many years you had designed into them.

    Thanks to the four previous servicing missions the Hubble is almost 5 years past its original life expectancy and NASA extended the planned shut down until 2010. I wouldn’t be surprised if, with this latest and last service mission being the success that it has, NASA extended the Hubble’s life a few more years.

    All told the 23 space walks over the five service missions totaled to about $9.6 billion in cost. I suppose you could argue that you could’ve built another 6.5 Hubbles for that much money, but that assumes that all the successors came in at the same cost as the original and would probably mean no real improvements in the technology.

    The Hubble’s planned successor, the James Webb Space Telescope which is planned for launch in 2013, was estimated in July of 2006 to have a total launch cost of $2.4 billion between then and the actual launch date. The JWST hasn’t been built yet. The overall Critical Design Review is currently scheduled for March 2010. Unlike the Hubble, it will not be serviceable and it has a 5 year mission with hoped-for life expectancy goal of 10 years. The estimated life-cycle cost of the project was estimated at about US$4.5 billion in 2005. What the ultimate cost will be remains to be seen, but it appears NASA is planning future space telescopes to be non-serviceable in part because the Space Shuttle fleet is being retired.

    I suppose you can debate over whether or not the cost of the Hubble over the years has been worth it. A Rasmussen Reports poll in May found that 47% of American voters thought it was while 21% disagreed and nearly one-third 32% were not sure. Astronomers the world over, however, have called the Hubble priceless in terms of the data and discoveries it has produced.

    Sources:
    A Brief History of the Hubble Space Telescope – CBS News
    Wikipedia entry for Hubble Space Telescope
    Official NASA Hubble Page
    Wikipedia entry on JWST
    Official NASA page for JWST

  14. Thanks for the research, Les, and like I stated previously, we all benefit from pure research. And then, there’s the emotional punch: a man on the moon? men in space? photos of stars millions, even billions of light years away? WOOHOO!  grin

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