We always have said that it makes more sense to send machines into space to explore the galaxy than to send humans to do the job. But it does strike us as a good idea to send astronauts into space to fix a machine -- specifically the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA scientists, engineers and astronauts are finalizing plans to use the space shuttle for a mission this fall to the Hubble to repair and upgrade the orbiting observatory. The long-delayed servicing mission will tweak its performance capabilities to the highest level ever and allow it to feed information back to earth for the next five or six years.
With the upgrade, the Hubble will detect events closer to the big bang, explore the galaxies and intergalactic gas that make up the structure of the universe, and, it is hoped, reveal more secrets about how and when distant stars and planets were formed. It will make the most productive telescope in history even more so.
Experts say it is difficult to overstate the importance of the Hubble in enhancing our understanding of the evolution of the universe and the hundreds of planets orbiting distant stars. Scientists claim that the observations by the telescope have resulted in an average of 12 published discoveries a week for years.
This mission. almost didn't happen. It was scuttled after the 2003 destruction of the space shuttle Columbia. Then plans to send a robot to the telescope to do the repairs did not pan out.
But finally, in 2006, after a public outcry in favor of fixing the Hubble, newly appointed NASA Administrator Michael Griffin reversed the earlier decision and gave the go-ahead for the mission. If the mission goes as planned, the first new Hubble data and images should begin transmitting by early next year.
We think the manned missions into space are overrated and far less productive than sending machines to the far reaches of the universe. But in this case, it appears only humans can do the job, and we're grateful NASA has decided to go ahead with the mission.