NASA's Perfect Mission

January 19, 1994

With proof in hand of a successful Hubble Space Telescope repair mission, NASA has shown that it can still be the "can-do" agency that put men on the moon and sent probes to the farthest planets. Last week's "first light" tests through the refurbished instrument returned razor-sharp pictures that met or exceeded scientists' most sanguine predictions for clarity and resolution.

The planning and execution of the complex mission is already being ranked as one of the space age's most spectacular successes to date. Politically, if not technically, the shuttle repair mission was a hurdle that had to be overcome in order for plans for the proposed space station to go forward. The shuttle Endeavor's crew proved that astronauts could work under the pressure of an alien environment and perform delicate operations on complex equipment precisely on schedule.

This was a stupendous achievement, and all the more remarkable because the Endeavor astronauts made it look almost as easy as fixing a flat tire. The full story of this historic mission has yet to be told, but already we know it involved one of the great scientific detective stories of all time: discovering the precise nature of the flaw in Hubble's mirror, followed by meticulous planning to manufacture replacement optics and months of rigorous training by the shuttle crew to bring the whole venture off virtually without a hitch. In many ways, the Hubble repair mission seemed more like science fiction than science fact -- much as the moon landing did a quarter century ago.

Like that earlier mission, too, the Hubble repair flight represented a giant step for mankind. Hubble's restored vision will extend astronomers' view across the universe by a factor of 10, and enlarge the visible volume of space by 1,000 times. It will bring the most distant objects into view and perhaps even enable astronomers to unravel the mystery of the invisible "dark matter" that seems to make up 90 percent of the universe. Such a discovery would rank with the Copernican revolution and the theory of relativity as landmark developments in the progress of human understanding.

Meanwhile, NASA is back in business as the nation's premier scientific and technical organization. "From adversity to the stars," goes the ancient motto. It's an apt description of NASA's magnificent aplomb in pushing back the boundaries of mankind's last great frontier.

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