Mission to Save Hubble

November 30, 1993

With the Space Shuttle Endeavor scheduled to lift off from Kennedy Space Center tomorrow to rendezvous with the Hubble Space Telescope, future U.S. space programs as well as the kind of Big Science typified by the orbiting observatory will once again be under scrutiny.

Not incidentally, the outcome will also have an impact on whether Baltimore, home to the Space Telescope Institute on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, retains its place as one of the world's preeminent astronomical research sites.

The mission of the planned 12-day flight will be repairing a major optical flaw in the telescope's 94.5-inch primary mirror. This flaw, which prevents the telescope from bringing distant star images into focus as sharply defined points, was caused by a minute error in shaping the mirror's surface that led to a deviation from the correct curvature of less than one-fiftieth the width of a human hair. Yet that was enough to keep Hubble from fulfilling its potential; scientists have had to postpone half the observations originally planned.

Had the flaw been discovered before the telescope was launched in 1990, it would have cost about $2 million to fix the flaws. It was not discovered, however, and investigators later determined the failure was in part due to the fact that the company that manufactured the mirror, Perkins-Elmer, may have given NASA faulty test data showing the instrument had met specifications. The company has since agreed to pay $25 million toward the total cost of repairing the telescope in orbit, which NASA now estimates at $86.3 million.

The problems with the Hubble created intense embarrassment for NASA, coming in the wake of the Shuttle Challenger tragedy. The failures of NOAA-13, the weather satellite launched Aug. 9 at a total cost of $100 million, and the Mars Observer, the $980 million mission that was to have orbited Mars in the first U.S. exploration of that planet since 1976, also put pressure on NASA. The telescope has been mired in controversy over a history of cost overruns that so far have more than tripled its original $450 million price tag.

Despite these setbacks, Hubble has accomplished important scientific work. If the repair mission succeeds, the telescope will enable scientists to study distant objects with unprecedented precision, perhaps leading to important discoveries about the origin and fate of the universe -- and ensuring Baltimore's place in astronomical history as one of the world's great observatory sites, along with Mount Palomar in California and Greenwich, England. Given the stakes, it's no wonder NASA's preparations have been exhaustive. There's a lot riding on the success of this mission.

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