Study spreads blame for Hubble NASA, mirror maker both responsible for space telescope flaws

November 26, 1990|By The Hartford Courant

Blame for the flawed Hubble space telescope must be shared by NASA because engineers were discouraged from reporting problems, an agency investigation has concluded.

"The culture has to be encouraged where you don't shoot the messenger," said John D. Mangus, a member of the Hubble Space Telescope Optical Systems Board of Investigation.

"People don't like bad news, but what they like worse is not to be told about the problems. I know it has occurred on many of NASA's projects," said Mangus.

Conditions discouraged engineers from bringing potential problems to their superiors at the National and Space Administration and at Perkin-Elmer Corp. in Danbury, Conn., where the mirrors were made, said Mangus, head of the optics branch of the space technology division at NASA.

To some extent, the flaw polished into the 94.5-inch mirror in 1980 and 1981 is a product of the same management climate that led to the fatal explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, Mangus said.

The manufacturer also shares the blame for a mirror flaw that prevents the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope from focusing clearly, the NASA panel has concluded after a five-month investigation.

An investigation into the Challenger explosion that killed seven crew members found that NASA ignored evidence of problems with O-rings sealing the joints of the shuttle's solid-fuel rocket boosters.

The immediate cause of the Hubble mirror flaw was a technician's mistake, but program managers approved the flawed quality-control program that allowed the mistake to escape detection, says the board's report, which is scheduled to be released tomorrow.

Board members would not release the report, but Mangus and others members said the report also says:

* Mirror-testing relied too heavily on a single instrument, which had been assembled improperly. Relatively simple "sanity checks" should have been done to make sure the mirror-polishing system was working properly.

* There was too little contact between those working on the mirror and NASA project supervisors who could have understood the test results.

* Quality-control inspectors lacked the expertise in optics to understand test results that showed a flaw in the mirror.

NASA needs to develop in-house expertise in this area, Mangus said.

"It might never have occurred to them to look at the raw data, and if they had, they might never have known how to interpret what they were looking at," Mangus said.

The Hubble telescope was launched with the space shuttle April 24, and the focusing flaw was disclosed June 27. The investigating committee convened July 2.

Despite the flaw, NASA scientists have reported increasing pleasure with the telescope's observations, which are better than can be made from instruments on Earth because the atmosphere doesn't interfere.

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