Who Pays for Hubble's Flaws?

October 27, 1992

When the $2 billion Hubble Space Telescope was found to have a serious flaw shortly after its launch into orbit aboard the space shuttle two years ago, NASA officials scrambled to answer the obvious question: Why wasn't the problem detected earlier, during extensive tests carried out by Perkin-Elmer Corp., the Hughes Aircraft subsidiary that manufactured the telescope mirror?

Now government investigators think they have a plausible answer. After a two-year inquiry, officials say they have uncovered evidence indicating that Perkin-Elmer knew the instrument was flawed and deliberately withheld test data that might have revealed the problem to NASA officials.

The damaging evidence against Perkin-Elmer involves tests of the mirror's smoothness known as interferograms, extremely precise contour maps of the reflecting surface that are used to check for optical flaws. Investigators say Perkin-Elmer altered standard test procedures and discounted or ignored results indicating the mirror contained spherical aberration, a form of distortion that results in smeared star images.

Potentially the most serious allegation is that the company cut off a portion of one test report sent to NASA to make it appear that the mirror met specifications. Investigators say the cut-off portion clearly revealed the mirror had significant flaws and that Perkin-Elmer deliberately hid this information from NASA. The company emphatically denies engaging in any wrongdoing.

The revelations strongly suggest Perkin-Elmer should have known its mirror was defective. In 1982, it might have cost the company a couple of million dollars and another six months to correct the flaw. That is a pittance compared to the extra $150 million or so it will cost the government to fix the Hubble telescope now that it's already in orbit.

This figure doesn't include the cost of another shuttle mission to make repairs or unforeseen problems that may crop up. Any way you look at, NASA has learned a very expensive lesson from this episode. It if turns out Perkin-Elmer indeed shares a portion of the blame for the mistakes that were made, the company ought to be made to bear a share of these enormous repair costs.

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