Certifying NASA's latest success

December 15, 1993

Ending its mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope with a perfect landing Monday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the shuttle Endeavour's flawless performance has NASA flying high for the moment. But it will still take many weeks for scientists to determine whether the refurbished space telescope now will be capable of living up to expectations.

On Sunday NASA reported that the Space Telescope appeared to be in good shape. Hubble was launched in 1990 with an improperly ground mirror that prevented it from focusing on the more remote objects in the universe.

NASA wanted desperately to vindicate itself for that costly mistake and to show the world, especially its critics in Congress, that despite problems it still can accomplish its goals. Those goals include construction of a complex space station slated for later this decade.

This mission was particularly important because the past year has been tough on the space agency's image. The Mars Observer vanished, two shuttle countdowns ended in launch pad aborts, and budget battles continued over building a space station. The FBI is investigating alleged kickbacks and bribes by NASA employees. The agency's contractors and a former consultant have called into question the safety of the solid-fuel boosters rockets that caused the Challenger disaster in 1986.

Looking ahead, critics charge that the space station is too expensive and lacks clear scientific goals. Earlier this year, skeptics in the House tried, and failed, to cut its funding to $1.7 billion from $2.1 billion. Even if everything goes as planned, construction will require at least 17 shuttle missions, each of which will have to be virtually as flawless as the Hubble repair mission just completed.

NASA argues that building, operating and conducting research in the station could lead to the invention of new robots and construction techniques, improved metals and alloys, better ways to grow crops and the creation of new drugs, and that skills learned in building the station will be needed to build an outpost on the moon and send a manned mission to Mars in the next century.

The collapse of the former Soviet Union has made space exploration a promising area of international cooperation. There's likely to be substantial Russian involvement in the space station and the even more ambitious projects that follow.

But right now, NASA is still waiting for the other shoe to drop. The agency won't be out of the woods until the Hubble repair job is certified a success.

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