CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- They risked their lives for the Hubble Space Telescope and did so gladly.
Now, many of the astronauts who worked on Hubble hundreds of miles above Earth are dismayed, bewildered, or both by NASA's decision to pull the plug on the mighty observatory.
"I just think it's a huge, huge mistake," said Greg Harbaugh, who performed Hubble repairs during two spacewalks in 1997. "It is probably the greatest instrument or tool for astronomical and astrophysical research since Galileo invented the telescope."
Though the decision is not absolute, there appears to be little chance NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe will change his mind about a Hubble servicing mission, deeming it too risky to astronauts after the Columbia disaster.
That would mean a premature death for the 14-year-old observatory whose latest snapshot -- revealed last week -- showed the deepest-ever view of the universe, a mishmash of galaxies dating almost all the way back to creation.
Tom Akers, part of the spacewalking team that restored Hubble's eyesight in 1993, also favors another mission.
"I definitely think that's an asset that we shouldn't throw away," said Akers, who teaches college math in Missouri. "That's my position and they know it."
NASA has been fending off heavy criticism ever since O'Keefe decided in January to cancel the last servicing, set for 2006.
Last week, at congressional urging, O'Keefe agreed to ask the National Academy of Sciences to study the issue from all perspectives, including using robots to install new cameras or augment battery power.
But despite the outcry, he does not expect to reconsider sending up astronauts.
An Internet petition has collected thousands of names, O'Keefe's e-mail system is clogged with complaints, members of Congress are demanding reviews by independent groups, and the chief Columbia accident investigator is urging a policy debate on the Hubble gains versus shuttle risks.
Even John Glenn has weighed in, telling President Bush's commission on moon and Mars travel that another servicing mission is necessary "to get every year's value out of that thing."
The canceled servicing mission would have equipped the Hubble with two state-of-the-art science instruments already built and worth a combined $176 million, as well as fresh batteries and gyroscopes. The work by spacewalkers would have kept Hubble humming until 2011 or 2012.
Without intervention, Hubble will probably take its last picture in 2007 or 2008. O'Keefe said he does not see how NASA could launch a servicing mission before then without shirking the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.
As an alternative, engineers are trying to figure out how to prolong the telescope's life with robotic help. NASA is quick to point out that when Hubble was launched, 15 years of service were promised, a goal that will be met next spring.
O'Keefe says said he cannot let astronauts fly to the telescope and risk being stuck there if their shuttle is damaged. There is no way a stranded shuttle crew could get from Hubble to the international space station in an entirely different orbit.