Telescope team takes delay in stride

December 01, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

Three-year-old Ryker Fitch rolled his eyes after the 24-hour launch delay was announced. "I just hate this," he said.

Ryker's dad is John Fitch, 30, an instrument engineer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. He and his son arrived at the institute long before dawn to watch the blastoff with about 75 other scientists, engineers and technicians.

Mr. Fitch has spent the last two years helping to prepare for the mission, "so there's a lot of work riding on this thing," he said. The delay was a disappointment, "but at least it's just the weather."

Fueled by coffee and pastries, space telescope staffers gathered in their auditorium to share the moment. With each announcement from mission control about high wind and further delays, they grew silent.

But this is a team that has learned to cope with delay, and to temper their disappointment with humor.

When NASA officials said they were trying to contact a ship that had strayed into restricted waters near Cape Canaveral, someone in the audience suggested getting the captain's attention by "strafing."

Michael Shara, 44, is one astronomer who has a lot riding on a successful launch. His proposals to observe a "nova" -- an exploding star -- with Hubble's Wide Field/Planetary Camera were shelved after discovery of the telescope's mirror flaw. The flaw left the telescope incapable of the high-resolution photography he needed for the work.

"I wanted to image the only known shell of a recurrent nova," a star that explodes every 20 to 30 years, Dr. Shara said. He expects that light from the next explosion will illuminate the expanding debris clouds from prior eruptions, providing him an opportunity to study the physics and chemistry of each one.

Fortunately, the star's next eruption is overdue, giving Dr. Shara time to make the observations with the new Wide Field/Planetary Camera Endeavour's astronauts are scheduled to install. In addition, the new instrument has improved light detectors and should provide better pictures.

If the repairs are made in time, "I'm going to be able to do this very high-resolution imagery and take pictures every week or every month after the next explosion goes off," he said. "I'm here for me."

Lauretta Nagel, a technical assistant at the institute who helps astronomers plan their observations, also was at the institute.She works with more than 30 professional astronomers.

"Now I'm going to get the satisfaction of seeing these [astronomers] get the scientific data, and we're finally going to get an answer to some of these [cosmic] questions," said Ms. Nagel.

Brett Blacker, a 30-year-old computer scientist who has worked on the Hubble project for 10 years, turned out for the early-morning launch attempt because "I just wanted to be here and share the excitement with everyone else. . . ."

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