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Panel wants astronauts to repair Hubble

A national panel of scientists recommended Tuesday that NASA revive its plan to send astronauts to repair the Hubble space telescope, even as the space agency solicits proposals for robots to do the work instead.

Without repairs, the 14-year-old orbiting observatory is expected to stop making observations by 2008, ending a spectacular string of discoveries at the furthest corners of the universe.

Spacewalking astronauts were scheduled to install new batteries and instruments in 2006. But NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe canceled those plans in January, citing safety concerns after the Columbia shuttle accident in February 2003 that killed all seven crew members.

NASA endured months of criticism after apparently deciding to abandon the telescope. Last month 1,000 astronomers cheered when O'Keefe appeared at their national meeting to unveil the new robot repair option.

Robot repairs are an intriguing possibility, said members of a special committee for the National Research Council, the investigative arm of the National Academies of Science. But robots are probably years from demonstrating the capabilities needed for a difficult high-orbit mission such as the telescope repairs. In an interim report released Tuesday, the committee unanimously recommended that NASA keep its original astronaut servicing plan intact, while trying to develop robot technology.

The recommendation seems to contradict O'Keefe's contention that NASA is far from proving that future shuttle missions would be safe according to new rules recommended by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

"I do not think the committee necessarily sees a gap between our report and the administrator," said committee chairman Louis Lanzerotti of Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs. "Keeping both options open will be prudent."

NASA officials did not return calls for comment yesterday.

For several months, O'Keefe has seemed unwilling to keep the Hubble working as astronaut safety is under scrutiny and plans are underway for an expensive mission to Mars outlined by President Bush.

When asked about the National Research Council's work at the Denver meeting, O'Keefe described the upcoming report as "an opinion" and said shuttle safety is his top concern.

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