"NASA will send a space shuttle and seven astronauts to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope... overturning an earlier  decision that the complex mission posed too much risk." --Washington Post, 11-1-2006
I am excited about this news. But it made me think: What changed between today's decision and the 2004 decision?
The 15-year-old Hubble Space Telescope is an amazing human achievement. It is arguably the most important scientific tool ever invented. Its ability to see into the past 13 billion years, nearly to the beginning of the universe, is our opportunity to imagine a future that far exceeds our current event horizon of climate change, flu epidemics, and whatever Madonna is up to. I believe our ability to imagine our role in a distant future is key to addressing today's problems.
The newly repaired telescope will allow us to see back an additional 300 million years. Hubble is credited with 40% of NASA's scientific discoveries over the last year and 1000 new jobs in the state of Maryland.
So what has changed in the past two years?
- We know more about diagnosing and repairing shuttle craft.
- We have found a little more money to pay for back-up equipment.
- The universe is two years older, which is hardly worth mentioning.
- Next generation space programs are that much closer.
- We have gained the confidence that a mission that was too unsafe two years ago is now safe.
I argue that neither the actual risk of the mission nor our mission capabilities has changed significantly between the first and second decisions. What has changed is NASA's willingness to more openly acknowledge what each of us knows in our heart: the world is imperfect and occasionally dangerous. NASA has gotten nerve.
Nerve is important to every organization, but seldom acknowledged and never designed-in. Nerve is an edgy kind of courage that means taking a chance that the future can be better instead of hoping it will be no worse. It means living with, and acting on, the understanding that everything in our expanding universe is temporary on some scale: our planet, our nation, our jobs, our homes, our selves. Nerve means deciding to live in the moments of transition between one change and the next.