The Hubble Space Telescope is one of the most widely appreciated scientific instruments ever constructed. It provided data that helped us understand the nature and magnitude of the universe we live in, and it had an immense public outreach. With the last service mission, in May 2009, Hubble‘s life has been extended for another five years. In 2014 it is expected to go out of service and be partially replaced by James Webb Space Telescope. Hubble may stay in orbit for a few more years, but it is now fitted with a docking adapter that will enable a robotic spacecraft to dock with the telescope and bring it into controlled reentry over the Pacific Ocean. Of course, the bulk of the telescope will be destroyed at the reentry.
There have been plans to bring Hubble back to Earth at the end of its operational life and putting it at the Smithsonian. The plans have been abandoned for reasons of cost and safety. It is estimated that a dedicated Space Shuttle mission for this purpose would cost around $1 billion, with substantial risk to the lives of astronauts. Besides, the Space Shuttle fleet is planned to go out of service in 2010.
Here’s a question to think about. Suppose that the plan for retiring the Space Shuttle fleet is no obstacle, and that the mission to retreive Hubble poses no special risk to the lives of astronauts. Would it be worth spending $1 billion for the sake of salvaging a museum piece? No doubt, it would be an extraordinary museum piece, the instrument that expanded our understanding of the universe like no other, an object of enduring value for generations to cherish. One might think of the number of people that could be fed with $1 billion, but even if we exclude such humanitarian reasoning, wouldn’t it be better to invest the money into the building of a comparable scientific instrument? The cost of design, construction and launch of Hubble‘s successor, James Webb Space Telescope, is estimated at $3,5 billion, so $1 billion is a significant fraction of that amount. So, here is the dilemma: $1 billion for a museum piece of extraordinary emotional and intellectual value, or for the construction of a comparable scientific instrument destined to expand our knowledge still further.