Second Sight, Second Chance The Quest To Fix The Hubble Space Telescope

March 14, 1993|By Douglas Birch

When the space shuttle Endeavor lifts off to save the Hubble Space Telescope this year, billions of dollars and NASA's reputation will be riding on the mission.

This will be more than just an expensive repair job in an exotic locale. One of the world's most advanced -- and expensive -- scientific satellites, the space telescope is also one of NASA's most-publicized failures.

Hubble can't see with the acuity that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration expected for its $1.4 billion investment of American tax dollars.

It has a telescope's equivalent of limited night vision. The main mirror that is supposed to bounce images through the telescope is misshapen, so a lot of the light from stars and galaxies is scattered and lost. Also, the two broad, winglike solar panels attached to the telescope's sides start shuddering every 90 minutes as they heat up and cool off while moving into and out of the Earth's shadow.

Imagine trying to use binoculars to watch a distant mountaintop while wearing sunglasses and standing in the back of a pickup truck jouncing over a stretch of washboard road. That sums up some of the major headaches Hubble astronomers face -- problems that have disrupted careers, embarrassed NASA and dismayed the public.

Now, more than 800 NASA employees, contractors, engineers and scientists are directly involved in the $544 million, seven-day Endeavor flight, scheduled to lift off in early December. Many people have staked their dreams and careers on the outcome; here are the stories of three of them:

* First, there's the detail-obsessed astronaut who will renovate the telescope during at least three days of spacewalks: MR. FIXIT.

* There's the Wisconsin astronomer whose career reached a pinnacle when one of his designs was chosen to ride aboard Hubble. His design succeeded -- yet now his creation must be removed because of Hubble's problems: DISPIRITED VOYAGER.

* Finally, there's the Baltimore engineer whose design for fitting the troubled telescope with corrective lenses will be the key to Hubble's salvation: THE EYE DOCTOR.

MR. FIXIT

HOUSTON -- Meet the top grease monkey in NASA's last-chance garage.

In a room crammed with gray metal desks at the Johnson Space Center, Story Musgrave sits cradling a container of black coffee in his hands. His glinting blue eyes restlessly scan the room. Suffering from a head cold, he talks in a nasal monotone about spare parts, power tools and balky bolts.

He could be the most overqualified mechanic in America.

The 57-year-old Marine Corps veteran is a surgeon with a medical degree from Columbia University, an MBA from the University of California at Los Angeles and a master's degree in literature from the University of Houston.

He has made some 460 parachute jumps, logged more than 17,000 hours piloting 160 different types of aircraft, penned poetry and worked as a mathematician. The 25-year NASA veteran has served on four previous shuttle missions. He took the first spacewalk from a shuttle, the Challenger, in 1983.

Still, no one could accuse him of overconfidence as he prepares to lead a team of astronauts who will try to repair the telescope in space.

"The whole thing is a nightmare, frankly," he said. "I'm scared. I've been running scared since I've got this assignment."

Partly, Dr. Musgrave's fear is a calculated strategy -- it's his way of trying to anticipate the unanticipated. Partly, he's just being realistic.

Satellites can be awful tough to fix. Last May, a shuttle crew tried to grab the Intelsat communications satellite, stuck in a low orbit, to strap a rocket engine on it and boost it higher. But the grappling bar designed for the job didn't work. After two failed efforts, three astronauts grabbed the 12-by-17-foot, 4 1/2-ton satellite by hand.

Last August, another shuttle team failed to reel out a $379 million tethered satellite. The experiment was designed to test whether satellites could be flown like kites from the shuttle's bay. The 12 ,, 1/2-mile-long tether snagged just 850 feet from the orbiter, getting hung up on a bolt added shortly before launch to strengthen the reel.

The Hubble team members are preparing for the worst as they train to replace the shuddering solar panels with new ones and to install new mirrors to correct Hubble's vision.

"Our ability to get this thing done depends on how creative and accommodative we are to the unknown," Dr. Musgrave said. "There are going to be surprises. Whether we get the job done or not depends upon how major they are."

Dr. Musgrave and the three other members of the Hubble repair crew -- Air Force Lt. Col. Thomas Akers and civilian mission specialists Kathryn Thornton and Jeffrey Hoffman -- will face a series of practical, nuts-and-bolts problems.

While astronauts use a robot arm to grab Hubble out of orbit, they must keep the 42 1/2-foot telescope, which weighs about as much as a Mass Transit Administration bus, from slamming into and damaging the shuttle.

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