HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Scientists who had been frustrated for two days by control problems with four telescopes aboard the space shuttle Columbia won the upper hand late yesterday and began their historic observations of the universe.
"We're finally there," Jack Jones, manager of the Astro mission, said after a sensitive system aboard the shuttle that guides the telescopes was able to automatically find and "lock on" to targets in the distant sky.
"It's a historic moment," astronomer Jeffrey A. Hoffman, a member of the Columbia's crew, told Mission Control after the Astro telescopes, for the first time, switched automatically from one target to another. That had proved an elusive goal for crew members aboard the Columbia who had been forced to guide the telescopes manually, a time-consuming process that often failed.
The successful maneuver marked a turning point in a program that was designed to give scientists their first prolonged look at the universe as shown in light that is absorbed by Earth's atmosphere.
Three of the telescopes aboard Columbia study objects in ultraviolet light, and the fourth is an X-ray telescope.
Such observations can only be done in space. Had the pointing system failed, a mission that some scientists have been working on for more than a decade would have been in dire jeopardy.
"I can smile now," mission scientist Theodore Gull said late yesterday. "We have an observatory. It's coming alive."
Astro was not the only event on yesterday's schedule for the crew members of the Columbia.
They also paused to gaze out the window and take a look at their neighbors. The Soviet space station Mir passed just about 30 miles over Columbia, and will do so several times during the mission, a reminder of just how crowded space is becoming.
There are five men aboard the Mir, including a Japanese television reporter, and seven aboard Columbia, making a record total of 12 people in space at the same time.
The shuttle is to land at Edwards Air Force Base in California Tuesday.
The Columbia crew includes two Marylanders: Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Samuel T. Durrance and Ronald A. Parise, an astronomer with Computer Sciences Corp. of Silver Spring.
Besides Mr. Hoffman, the other crew members are the commander, Vance Brand, the pilot, Air Force Col. Guy S. Gardner, and mission specialists John M. Lounge and Robert Parker.