A Sharper Image

December 13, 1993|By C. FRASER SMITH

I know why the chicken crossed the road, so I thought I knew why NASA sent the shuttle Endeavour into space:

It wanted to get to the other side of the atmosphere where it had deposited the Hubble Space Telescope. It wanted to fix the Hubble Space Telescope which went aloft with a flaw in its lens. A grinding error that left the lens out of kilter by a thickness equivalent to half the width of a human hair meant blurry pictures.

Not bad pictures, but not good enough for this sort of government work. Definitely have to fix it if we can, the astronomers said.

Can do, said NASA.

But there was more to the motivation. After all these years, all these flights, NASA still had something to prove. It had to show the world it hadn't lost its edge. So, its astronauts were up there last week for public-relations purposes. PR is a dominant reflex, as strong as the drive to explore new frontiers.

We did get a neat convergence here: A sharper image was the dual objective.

Suddenly, a drama unfolded in great detail. We learned how meticulous each of many repair and maintenance maneuvers had to be. The repairperson-astronauts went off with 150 tools, stashing them, according to NASA press releases, in various astro-type tool kits: the Sidewall Mounted Adapter Plates or the Adaptive Payload Carrier, for example.

I began to think of certain parallels: I could see myself hanging out there in space wondering where I'd put the old ballpeen hammer: I could have sworn I put it the Adaptive Payload Carrier. Not there? Better try the Sidewall Mounted Plates . . .

I kept thinking about replacing the bulb in the porch light, or trying to load film in the camera or fretting about whether the microcassette recorder is really recording. (I don't even think about trying to program the VCR.)

Let me say, I can handle the bulb change. If someone will spot me on the ladder, I can get the job done in less than an hour.

It's not a novel insight, but we do minimize the wonder of all this. We want a zero-defect everything. It's a measure of something that we expect a miracle from the astronauts and we get it almost always -- yet they're out there in space trying to make us notice.

Having had a few setbacks -- the lens thing, a probe that lost its voice and then disappeared -- NASA was up there last week trying to make a comeback. Not a real comeback, since its work must surely be as good as any work our society produces, but a PR comeback. In space as in politics, perception is reality.

We won't know for a while if Hubble is fixed. And NASA's image will probably always need adjustments.

But not for me. I'm in awe of the whole and of its parts: tracking down 12.5-ton telescopes in orbit; changing solar panels at 18,000 miles an hour; replacing whole computers; installing a lens-correcting device.

Oh, you're right, it wasn't flawless. A screw was dropped. But one of the two astronauts then dived for it like Cal going deep into the hole. A gloved hand snared the errant metal and kept it from doing any harm.

At one point during all of this, Ted Koppel was on ''Nightline's'' earth-to-orbit telephone asking Astronaut F. Story Musgrave, surgeon and scholar, if he would tell us the deeper meaning of what he and his team were doing. I don't remember what he said. Just seeing him up there, hearing his voice was still the answer for me.

We need to keep working at it, though.

I noticed there was a bit of static on the phone line.

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Sun.

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