The Hubble Space Telescope has been released back into its own orbit after five grueling spacewalks to perform final repairs. With two new instruments, two repaired instruments, new gyroscopes, new batteries, new pointing equipment, and new insulation, our astronauts have given Hubble the best possible chance for a long continuing career.
This shuttle mission has been fun to watch. I don't get much of a chance to watch most missions, but I can make the excuse that Hubble is part of my job, so my work benefits from watching the repairs to the telescope.
We astronomers often forget that the same astronauts who put so much effort into launching and refurbishing our telescope put the same effort into building and maintaining the International Space Station. Those shuttle missions don't get the same kind of media coverage, probably because installing a camera that can take pictures of the most distant galaxies sounds a lot more exciting than installing a new toilet on the space station. (I'd be willing to bet that the residents of the space station prefer the working toilet.) But the space station work is just as complex, just as demanding, and just as full of trials and tribulations as the Hubble repairs have been. It's very easy, and very unkind, to forget that.
We astronomers tend to gripe quite a bit about the manned space flight wing of NASA. Putting humans into space is incredibly expensive, and we've been unconvinced that the research being done by manned space flight is worth that cost, especially when it means less money for astronomy research. In January 2008, at the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin challenged us astronomers to, among other things, support manned space flight as much as the manned space flight folks support us. This week, the manned space flight arm of NASA has demonstrated their commitment to the astronomers, by spending years in training, by fighting for this mission in spite of the safety concerns, and by the entire shuttle crew working hard during five long and trying days of spacewalks.
If the problems that we astronomers seem to have with manned space flight are, as I often hear, the lack of a coherent goal for manned flight and a series of science experiments with uncertain scientific value, then it's time for us to stop sniping from the audience and start to offer constructive ideas for the direction of manned flight (and I'm as guilty of this griping and muttering as anyone). The manned space flight program has saved Hubble six times now, counting launch and five servicing missions. They've got our back. Do we have theirs?