Was the Hubble Telescope Worth It?

Nature marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Hubble program with a mini retrospective. It notes the 750,000 images and 120 gigabytes of data sent back to earth, then describes the finances:

Fifteen Years of Hubble

Launched at a cost of $1.5 billion, it has now had three servicing missions, only one of which – a trip to fix a focusing defect in one of its mirrors – was unplanned. The telescope was initially seen as having a potential working lifetime of 20 years. But given its prolific output, each image has averaged a cost of just a few dollars.

Interesting. As one might expect, this estimate coincides with Hubble scientist Ed Weiler’s claim that the average American is paying less than $1 a year in taxes.

I’m unsure whether these numbers are accurate, but it certainly doesn’t give me much comfort that NASA figures have been lacking in documentation. See this November 2004 GAO Report:

At our request, NASA prepared an estimate of the funding needed for a shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble. NASA estimates the cost at between $1.7 billion to $2.4 billion. However, documentary support for portions of the estimate is insufficient. For example, NASA officials told us that the Hubble project̢۪s sustaining engineering costs run $9 to 10 million per month, but they were unable to produce a calculation or documents to support the estimate because they do not track these costs by servicing mission. Additionally, the agency has acknowledged that many uncertainties, such as the lack of a design solution for autonomous inspection and repair of the shuttle, could change the estimate.

I suppose it’s one thing to be cost-effective and another to maintain rigorous accounting.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology,
Robert Garcia Tagorda
About Robert Garcia Tagorda
Robert blogged prolifically at OTB from November 2004 to August 2005, when career demands took him in a different direction. He graduated summa cum laude from Claremont McKenna College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and earned his Master in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


  1. Read the article more closely – Mr. Weiler claimed that the average American was paying less than $1 per year in taxes for Hubble, not total taxes.

    I don’t know the accuracy of that statement, either, but I think you have unfairly represented what he stated.