IT HAS not been a stellar year for space astronomy. First there was the Hubble Space Telescope, that $1.5 billion eye-in-the-sky that can't quite get things in focus. Now the $150 million Astro observatory, plagued by computer trouble. More than 100 planned observations, out of about 250, had to be scrubbed.
Yet, not all is gloomy out there. Hubble, in spite of its optical flaws, is enabling astronomers to do some serious science and is returning some spectacular images from the solar system. Magellan is assembling a detailed map of Venus. And the Astro observatory, glitches and all, helped astronauts make a significant bit of history. Columbia's astronauts beamed a lesson from space, just as schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe had wanted to do nearly five years ago when she won a place on the disastrous Challenger mission.
Teaching is [among] the most useful things NASA can do for the country now. So it is good to see someone teaching from orbit, answering questions from kids on the ground. [The] lesson from Columbia was a modest comeback for a project that has been stalled far too long -- the project of bringing space down to Earth.