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NASA studies offer of a private mission to save Hubble Space Telescope

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hubble Space Telescope has gone 15 years without being touched by a human being. It's been that long since the last repair mission, and if the Hubble goes without maintenance for another decade, this busy and valuable telescope will fall into the atmosphere and be destroyed. That is why one wealthy man proposed to pay for and lead his own mission into space to fix it. He made that proposal to NASA, the space agency, and NPR has obtained internal NASA emails that reveal how the agency reacted. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce got a hold of them. Hi there, Nell.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hey there.

INSKEEP: Who is this guy who wants to go into space?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, he's already been in space. He's a businessman and an avid pilot named Jared Isaacman, and he led the first all-civilian trip to orbit in a SpaceX capsule. And, you know, he wants to push space flight technologies forward, so he's contracted three more space flights with SpaceX, and they'll do one this summer. It's going to be the first ever commercial spacewalk. And for his second flight in this series, SpaceX approached NASA with the idea that maybe it could go to Hubble, and Isaacman's team could boost its orbit, which would extend its life, and, you know, even do some upgrades or some maintenance work to keep this 34-year-old telescope going.

INSKEEP: OK, so he's very wealthy. He has already contracted these flights, so it's like he's saying, I've already rented the car. I've got the rental, and why don't I just go up to the telescope, since I got it anyway? How did NASA respond?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA took it really seriously. They held a press conference. They said they'd do a feasibility study. They estimated it would take about six months, and that was a year and a half ago. And since then, NASA has basically been mum. Meanwhile, on social media and in interviews, Isaacman has been making a lot of pointed comments. For example, he said, it's a no-brainer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JARED ISAACMAN: This is so obvious to do, and if it's not, it's purely political.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But I requested some internal NASA emails through the Freedom of Information Act, 'cause I wanted to know, like, what was going on in the agency, and what I learned is that about a year ago, longtime Hubble experts who had reviewed the feasibility study were writing to NASA managers and expressing concerns.

INSKEEP: Oh, what kind of concerns?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, in the past, you know, Hubble doctoring has always followed the old adage, you know, first do no harm, and remember - NASA currently has a working telescope, so they don't want to, you know, endanger that. And it's no small thing to just safely rendezvous with Hubble, you know, without, like, running into it. And the spacewalking astronauts who did work on Hubble were always hyperaware of the risk that they might do something that would break it.

In one email, a Hubble operations expert said that having Isaacman's team attempt a spacewalk there would be, quote, "unnecessary and risky." And one astronaut who's done work at Hubble wrote another email saying that, you know, this trip wasn't the only option, that NASA could always request funds from Congress and do another mission, like, with a commercial partner later on, when NASA was in the driver's seat and the space systems were more mature. SpaceX has got this new suit for spacewalking that it just unveiled this month, but it hasn't even been tested in space yet.

INSKEEP: Well, what does everybody involved say, now that you've revealed what some of the concerns are about this mission?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So Isaacman's communications manager said he wouldn't do an interview, didn't respond to questions. SpaceX didn't either. NASA has said that it may actually provide an update on its study, possibly as soon as this week.

INSKEEP: OK, we'll listen for more of your reporting. Nell, thanks so much.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.