Thursday, December 9, 2004

The Trouble with Hubble






No one knew, when the Hubble telescope was launched, that it was going to be a star-of-the-show on the level of Galileo, Marco Polo or Magellan. But it was and the photographs it sent back mesmerized the public and the science-side is for the scientists, but we can make a pretty good guess that it’s unparalleled.



But like all good things, it must come to an end and like all things that go up, it must someday come down and therein lies the rub. The NASA Administrator, a guy by the name of Sean O’Keefe, does his administrating in the best tradition of administrators, which is gun-shy, snake-bit, timid and not likely to stick his neck out. Challenger sapped all O’Keefe’s courage and if you have an administrator-mindset it’s hard to fault him. Heads roll when those things break up in mid mission and O’Keefe’s going to make damned sure his head isn’t one of them. He sure wasn’t going to send another squad of astronauts up and into harm’s way for some hunk of machinery and so he decided to let Hubble turn to rubble. Then he waffled in the face of public outcry and said he might send a robot, although the robot he has in mind is in the earliest stages of development and not likely to be operational until after Hubble burns.



O’Keefe hedged his bet with what administrators usually use, a study commission. This one bit him in the ankle with a report that rather strongly suggests he send up some human resources, take two aspirin and try to locate his courage in the morning.



The whole scenario is understandable from everyone’s position, but it brings into question our modern appetite for risk. Societies, as they climb the socio-economic stairway to relative affluence seem to become increasingly risk-averse. I wonder why that is? Perhaps some anthropology department at Yale or U of M can get a grant to find out why our society has gotten such a bad case of the exploratory jitters.



Police willingly put themselves at risk for their fellows, as do firemen. We accept that and less approvingly (but still substantially) understand that our armed services are likely to get their members killed or wounded. Without much comment, society accepts around fifty-thousand automobile deaths every year and yet NASA’s O’Keefe is frozen like a deer in the headlights over the possibility that a manned servicing of Hubble might end in disaster. What, six or seven astronauts? Not to put down any risk or point in a particular direction, but space missions are voluntary---no one’s putting a gun to the head of NASA personnel who are willing to take this risk, do this job. But somehow, we no longer have the mind-set that got excited about Rogers and Clark, Ferdinand Magellan and Stanley and Livingstone.



I’d love to hear opinions about why that is.