Scientists live and work every day under the pressure of a simple proposition: just when you think something's been settled for good, nature serves up a monkey wrench. Critics of manned orbital exploration of space should take a long look at what happened this week when the shuttle Atlantis got ready to loft into orbit the 17-ton, $617-million Gamma Ray Observatory.
A communications antenna boom jammed. Had the shuttle program been scrapped, as many observers advocated after the 1986 Challenger tragedy, this could have been catastrophic. While a multi-stage rocket could have placed the satellite in orbit, there would have been no shuttle and no astronauts to undertake manual repairs. Fixing problems by remote control is surely possible, as NASA scientists have repeatedly shown with planetary probes, but it is by no means certain. This time, astronauts made an unscheduled spacewalk to jiggle the boom and deploy the satellite.
This may have saved the observatory's two-year mission to map high-energy gamma rays that carry clues to such puzzles as exploding stars and black holes. The observatory may also help astronomers unravel the mysteries of a recently discovered super-massive object in a bright galaxy 300 million light-years away. Using the 88-inch telescope atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano, an astronomy team has found what appears to be galaxies in collision, with one revolving around a dark object thought to be as massive as the entire Milky Way galaxy.