The ongoing soap opera surrounding the fate of the Hubble Space Telescope makes the pages at MO frequently. Here’s an interesting idea put forward by Bruce Moomaw, who’s a critic of the space shuttle program and therefore a personal hero of mine. He writes that another possibility for the Hubble (besides space shuttle service missions, unmanned service missions, or no service missions) might be to fly manned Soyuz missions to the Hubble for service.
Right now Soyuzes, being launched from the high-latitude Russian base in Kazakhstan, can match orbital planes with the [International Space] Station, but cannot rendezvous with the Hubble. However, the European Space Agency has just signed an official agreement with Russia to allow launches of the Soyuz booster from its equatorial launch pad in French Guiana starting in 2006 — and this could allow manned Soyuzes to be thus launched and rendezvous with Hubble.
While Soyuz can carry only a three-man crew and has less ability to maneuver in orbit than the OSP will have, the cost of launching and carrying out Soyuz missions is so low that it might very well be possible to split the SM-4 servicing mission into two separate Soyuz-Workbench missions for less than the cost of a single Shuttle-based servicing mission.
The “Workbench” is a possible unit containing much of the equipment for the Hubble, as well as docking mechanisms and a retro-rocket pack to de-orbit the Hubble when its mission is finally ended. Moomaw points out that if Soyuz servicing missions in the middle of this decade can stretch the life of Hubble (especially its failure-prone gyrocompasses) the Orbital Space Plane (OSP) would be able to perform additional service missions later in the decade and beyond.
I’m not holding my breath on the OSP, but I think the possibility of Soyuz service missions needs to be investigated. The Hubble is an extremely valuable piece of equipment, and its replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, won’t have visual spectrum capabilities. Especially with the cost-savings offered by the Soyuz option, I think NASA needs to do everything it can to keep Hubble running.
I’m not holding my breath on that, either.