Hubble trip a chance to justify huge costs

November 28, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,NASA. Ball corporation/ TEXT BY FRANK ROYLANCE/ STAFF GRAPHIC AND ADDITIONAL RESEARCH BY CHARLES HAZARDStaff Writer

"The Space Telescope will be the eighth wonder of the world."

-- NASA administrator James Beggs, to the House Appropriations subcommittee, 1984.

"It ought to be, at that price."

6* -- U.S. Rep. Edward P. Boland, D-Mass.

(Quoted in "The Space Telescope" by Robert W. Smith)

In the 30 years since America's foremost scientists first proposed launching a large telescope into space, the nation's taxpayers have spent nearly $3 billion to realize that dream.

And they haven't finished paying for it.

By the year 2005, the culmination of the 15-year life span of the Hubble Space Telescope, the NASA project will have cost at least $6.5 billion, agency figures show. And that doesn't include $32 million spent on preliminary studies between 1965 and 1976, before Hubble became a fully funded program for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, according to federal records.

On Wednesday, NASA plans to launch one of its most arduous and complex space shuttle missions ever: to service the Hubble telescope and repair its misshapen primary mirror, a flaw discovered within two months of the telescope's April 1990 launch. How well the mission goes should go a long way in determining America's return on its investment in Hubble -- the telescope with the power to help astronomers uncover the origins and destiny of the universe.

But it also may spell trouble for the future of other large, costly projects, such as NASA's planned space station.

"I'm sure we'll all consume a lot of Rolaids during this mission, because it is high stakes and so much is riding on the shoulders of the crew of Endeavour," said Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, chairwoman of the Senate appropriations committee that oversees NASA's budget. "But they are among the best America has to offer for work in space."

The way Edward J. Weiler sees it, Americans each pay about two cents a week to cover the annual operating costs of the Hubble Space Telescope. Its worth extends beyond scientific discoveries, said Dr. Weiler, a space telescope scientist at NASA.

"Hubble has the capability, along with other big programs, of doing something more important," said Dr. Weiler. "That is inspiration to youth."

Added Robert W. Smith, the official historian of the Hubble Space Telescope: "We haven't gotten far enough into the program to make any kind of general projections on whether it was worth it or not."

Bold science is expensive

Named for the 20th-century astronomer Edwin P. Hubble, the 43-foot-long telescope represents Big Science at its boldest: The largest, most complex space observatory ever built, it offered astronomers a chance to peer into galaxies billions of light years away and make important scientific discoveries.

Almost from its inception, however, the Hubble telescope fell victim to the politics and pragmatics of funding such projects, an annual endeavor.

Every year, NASA administrators had to defend the program on Capitol Hill. Initial estimates proved to be woefully inadequate. Repeatedly, they faced congressional demands to reduce the cost of the project. In two early program reviews, the General Accounting Office asked NASA to provide Congress with the total "lifecycle" costs of the project.

Meanwhile, management problems and cost overruns dogged the project, according to federal officials and records.

"The job taken on was more difficult than people realized, which is often the case in high-technology programs. It's very hard to estimate how much it's going to cost up front, when they haven't been built before," said Dr. Weiler.

Even after the telescope was built, the project ran into difficulty. The 1986 launch of Hubble was scuttled because of the explosion of the shuttle Challenger. While NASA sought to repair its devastated shuttle program, Hubble sat in a special storage facility in California at a cost of $8 million a month, according to congressional records.

Finally, following a successful 1989 shuttle flight, the telescope was launched into space in April 1990. Two months later, the problem with Hubble's 94.5-inch primary mirror was discovered. At that time, the project's cost was put at about $1.5 billion, according to federal records. Once adjusted for inflation, the cost of the project represented twice its original 1978 estimate of million, NASA told Congress in July 1990.

"Hubble may be yet another example of what happens when we run highly complex research and development programs on tight-fisted budgets," Rep. George E. Brown Jr., a California Democrat, noted during a 1990 congressional hearing.

Vital opportunity

With the telescope's main mirror flawed, NASA knew an attempt to clear Hubble's blurry vision would cost the agency money it hadn't anticipated spending.

If detected prior to launch, the repair would have cost $2 million, an investigation into the cause of the flawed mirror found. But with Hubble orbiting 355 miles above Earth, NASA decided to fix it during the planned 1993 servicing mission.

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