Most important things in Hubble mission rehearsal are ones that go wrong Crew of 'gremlins' works with NASA

November 09, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

JOHNSON SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, Tex. -- The mock repairs of the Hubble Space Telescope were moving along at a brisk pace when Astronaut Tom Akers alerted NASA mission control to the unidentified flying object in view.

"Did he say mosquito?" flight activity officer Neil Woodbury asked his colleagues in the control room yesterday as they watched two astronauts move about under water in a 25-foot-deep buoyancy pool.

Mosquitoes, plural, a second control room officer corrected as the staff overseeing this 59-hour simulation of the Dec. 1 Hubble service mission pondered the news from the repair crew with a touch of amusement in their voices. A dozen of the critters apparently flew out of a space shuttle cargo bin, the astronauts reported, as the crew prepared to remove a replica of an optics device designed to correct Hubble's flawed vision.

The mosquitoes, it turned out, weren't real. They were among a grab bag of tricks prepared by "the bad guys," a team of space flight specialists whose sole job during the simulation -- which will continue through tomorrow -- is to cause problems for the 7-member crew and the hundreds of mission control staffers who work on the ground.

"We wreak havoc. We break things and watch them fix [them]," said Bryan Austin, a 35-year-old engineer and the chief gremlin of the simulation team.

The phantom mosquitoes aside, it was serious business here yesterday as officials of the $251 million mission to service and repair the space telescope dealt with both simulated and actual problems that could deprive them of the success that America's space program needs.

Yesterday's simulation began as though it were Hour 16 1/2 of the fifth day of the space mission. Two astronauts, dressed in their 250-pound space suits, practiced a space walk in the deep-water tank, located in a cavernous garage at the space center. A short walk away, inside the mission control center, NASA officials monitored on closed-circuit television the astronauts' activities as well as those of the payload commander, F. Story Musgrave, who choreographed the space walkers' every move -- including the number of times a particular bolt needed to be turned.

In the first three hours of the practice spacewalk, astronauts Kathryn C. Thornton and Tom Akers, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, had already been thrown several curveballs -- and a few "sliders" --said Mr. Austin.

A bolt broke off the door of the mock telescope. Pins inside an electrical connector were bent and had to be straightened. A piece of equipment removed from the telescope during the first hour of the simulation wouldn't fit into a cargo bin, posing the possibility that the instrument might have to be jettisoned from the Shuttle Endeavour.

Mr. Austin planned about 100 such glitches for the 2 1/2 -day practice run. He is the Murphy in Murphy's Law, the man with untold surprises up his sleeve.

But there is a method to his madness. Take the mosquitoes. They represented possible contamination of the equipment. And the challenge for mission officials was to decide if the equipment should be fitted into the telescope despite the possible contamination. Officials from Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt told mission control yesterday to go ahead. The two astronauts then inserted the replica of the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement, without a problem and ahead of schedule.

But even the gremlins get surprised.

In theory, Colonel Akers was supposed to tell his crew leader and mission control that he saw "particles" that resembled mosquitoes. But when he read the "green card" -- NASA's version of a cue card -- he blurted out the word "mosquitoes." The incongruity of such a discovery in space was not lost on mission control.

"Should we ask if they're Maryland mosquitoes?" J. Milton Heflin, the mission's flight director, quipped in an allusion to the Goddard center, which tested and packaged the equipment that is to be installed in Hubble during the 11-day mission.

During a later maneuver, as the astronauts struggled to fit a piece of equipment into the cargo bin, Mr. Heflin told the astronauts' commander:

"See if they spot any more debris like those Maryland mosquitoes."

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