Federal officials say a two-year inquiry has found evidence that the makers of the mirror for the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope hid important clues to the flaw that has crippled the most complex and costly scientific instrument ever put into space.
The makers of the 8-foot mirror deny any wrongdoing, saying the government was fully informed of all data for judging whether the telescope's main light-gathering mirror had imperfections.
But federal officials say NASA's inspector general has uncovered evidence suggesting that the contractor may be liable for damages. They say the Justice Department is preparing to ask the company, which was owned by Perkin-Elmer Corp. in the 1980s and was sold to the Hughes Aircraft subsidiary of General Motors Corp. in 1989, to pay a substantial amount.
The cause of the mirror flaw has been well-known for two years, as has the fact that many warning signs of a debilitating problem were ignored in the early 1980s while the mirror was being made. The view among experts has been that the red flags were mistakenly discounted.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration disclosed that Hubble had blurred vision in June 1990, two months after the telescope was sent aloft, and the agency began an investigation in July of that year.
NASA now believes that important clues of impending trouble were withheld by the mirror's makers, misleading the space agency by accident or design into thinking the mirror was technically perfect.
In one case, federal officials say a photograph of a critical test of the mirror's smoothness known as an interferogram was clipped around its edges, stripped of a set of wavy lines that warned of serious trouble.
Any punitive move by the Justice Department, which could press for an out-of-court settlement or, failing that, a civil trial, is likely to be resisted by the mirror's makers.
"Hughes' stand is that any claims or suits are unwarranted" because it did not own the unit at the critical time, said Richard D. Dore, a company spokesman at corporate headquarters in Los Angeles.
Edward Bloch, a Perkin-Elmer spokesman, said that inquiries about the telescope were normally referred to Hughes and that he could find no company officials knowledgeable about the issues.
A Justice Department spokesman said the agency had no comment on the case, as did NASA Inspector General William D. Colvin.
If the makers were to admit they are to blame, they would relieve NASA of some of the blame and spread it to contractors. After the flaw was discovered, NASA was severely criticized as having exercised lax supervision over the ambitious project and having failed to authorize and finance critical tests that would have easily revealed the trouble.
But many space experts, including some of NASA's critics on Capitol Hill, say the space agency has long been hostage to its contractors, and they generally applaud moves to hold the companies more accountable.
At first Hubble was pronounced a technological triumph and the accuracy of its mirror remarkable. If the 94.5-inch mirror were expanded to the size of the continental United States, the imperfections were supposed to be no more than bumps a few inches high.
The most powerful telescope ever lofted into space, the 43-foot-long observatory was expected to scan distant stars and galaxies with a clarity 10 times that ever achieved before.
But the flaw, a symmetrical distortion of the mirror known as spherical aberration, threw off Hubble's focus so that starlight, instead of falling at one point within the telescope, spread over an area.
Its blurred vision became a potent symbol of the tribulations of big science and a driving force behind many changes in the space program, including a shift in planning from large spacecraft to ones that are relatively small and simple.
NASA scientists have devised clever ways to live with the blur, but the problem is still considered bad enough that a space-shuttle repair mission is scheduled for next year or soon thereafter.
Every shuttle mission costs nearly $1 billion, making the repair mission an expensive venture. Astronauts are to equip the telescope with corrective lenses.
The NASA investigation into the cause of the blur was begun in July 1990 and was led by Dr. Lew Allen, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Allen report, released in November 1990, identified the source of the flaw as an improperly built piece of a test instrument at Perkin-Elmer that threw off final polishing.
After the report was made public, the NASA inspector general took over the investigation, encouraged to do so by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who heads the subcommittee that oversees NASA's budget and whose state has the Space Telescope Science Institute, which runs the orbiting observatory.
Administration and congressional officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, say that investigation produced evidence that Perkin-Elmer had not, as one put it, "laid all its cards on the table."