Tuesday, May 26, 2009

This is why we fly

Hubble repair mission showcases the value of the manned space program

Houston Chronicle

The billion-dollar Hubble Space Telescope boasts astounding accomplishments. For nearly two decades, this window to the universe has peered back millions of years in time to produce stunning photographs of stars, nebulae and galaxies whose light took eons to reach the Earth.

But the Hubble, launched with a flawed lens and fuzzy vision, would have been remembered as a colossal blunder had not the brave men and women of NASA been prepared to fly into space to install corrective optics.

For those who continue to question the necessity for a human role in the exploration of space, the marvelous achievements this past week of physicist, astronomer and astronaut John Grunsfeld and his shuttle Atlantis crew mates provide an inspiring answer.

In five grueling spacewalks to revive the aging Hubble, the astronauts demonstrated why human hands and minds in orbit remain indispensable.

The spacewalking mechanics, encumbered by bulky gloves and spacesuits, successfully pulled off unprecedentedly complex repairs. Nearly 37 hours of maintenance, installation and rehab work on the telescope not only restored the universe-piercing gaze of Hubble, but expanded its capabilities to probe even further into the mysteries of the cosmos.

Grunsfeld, who has visited the Hubble three times on repair assignments (including eight spacewalks), applied the last human touch to a project that has been the culmination of his multi-discipline career.

The telescope is expected to function with enhanced capabilities for at least five more years before it is decommissioned and guided by a robot craft in a fiery descent to the Pacific Ocean.

As the Obama administration evaluates the future of NASA’s manned space program, the final mission to Hubble echoes the experiences of earthbound explorers over the ages: Machines can assist humans, but not replace them.

That’s a message that Houstonian and former shuttle commander Charles F. Bolden Jr. — named on Saturday by President Obama to be the next NASA administrator — will be well qualified to deliver upon assuming his new post.

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