Hubble:Details Count

November 29, 1990

Poor attention to detail. That is the basic conclusion of the investigative technical report into the troubles occluding the $2-billion Hubble Space Telescope's vision. Among the main findings of the investigator:

* Perkin-Elmer Corp.'s Optical Operations Division ran a "closed shop." All procedures were controlled in-house and problems were kept from higher-ups in the company and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

* NASA's organizational structure made it difficult for technical personnel to convey their uncertainties about the work they were overseeing to the agency's upper echelons.

* Perkin-Elmer relied too much on a new procedure to insure proper mirror grinding. NASA and company personnel had doubts about the mirror, after failures on two separate tests, but lower-level managers discounted them.

* Perkin-Elmer used its top optical experts to prepare its bid for the Hubble work, but did not keep them on the project when the company actually began the work.

If this sounds like the problems that turned the space shuttle Challenger into a smoking cloud of debris, it's all related. Many American industrial firms have had to flatten out their organizations as offshore competitors beat them on quality control and efficiency. What's good for them may be good for NASA, too.

The top managers' inattention to detail may cost as much as $50 million to correct, whenever astronauts get around to adding the new wide-field planetary camera and focal-plane optics to correct the Hubble's vision. The delays this has caused have created much anguish among the scientists waiting to use the telescope and much embarrassment to the nation.

NASA experts say their agency has changed its ways in the 10 years since Hubble was built, especially after the Challenger disaster. Let's hope it has, for other major scientific projects are soon to be launched. That includes the Astro-1 Observatory, a decade in preparation and awaiting a Sunday lift-off. The hydrogen leaks that plagued the shuttle Columbia, which is to carry Astro-1, seem to be over. But the delays and cost overruns they fostered have already killed the follow-on Astro-2 and 3 observatories and put the careers of astronomers waiting to use Astro-1 in limbo. Better attention to detail, down the line, is mandatory if these costly foul-ups are to cease.

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