NASA Clears Its Image?
A S THE EARLY DECEMBER LAUNCH DATE LOOMED FOR the Hubble Space Telescope repair mission, NASA’S veteran spin controllers did their best to lower public expectations.
The seven astronauts who would ride into orbit aboard Endeavour faced the toughest assignment ever handed to a shuttle crew and the most complicated mission since the moon shots of two decades earlier. Their mandate was to sharpen the telescope’s marred eyesight, the result of an improperly manufactured mirror, by fitting the instrument with corrective lenses. They were also to revamp some faulty electronic systems, put in new gyroscopes and replace two unstable solar-energy panels. Getting the job done would require wrestling huge pieces of machinery into tight spaces, disconnecting and connecting fragile electronic equipment and making sure no loose screws damaged the delicate telescope—all while wearing puffy pressure suits and bulky gloves in a vacuum at zero gravity and at ~3OOO F. In theory, NASA said, the crew could complete this orbital overhaul in 5 six-hour space walks; in practice, there would almost certainly be a few major flubs.
As it turned out, the spin cycle was unnecessary. Endeavour’s exquisitely trained crew breezed through every job on their work order and even managed to make their tasks look like fun. “Piece of cake!” shouted Kathryn Thornton, perched atop the shuttle’s 50-foot robot arm as she sent a mangled solar-energy panel off into space. Although the final verdict on the repair job would not be rendered until January 1994, after many weeks of tests, NASA and the crew were confident and euphoric. The spacefarers had done more than salvage a telescope: they had also created a kind of time warp. For a few days, America was back in the 1960s, an era when space was a grand frontier to be tamed, and when NASA’S technical brill-iance and right-stuff bravado made the agency seem virtually unstoppable.
In recent years the space agency’s reputation had plummeted. Ever since the Challenger blew up less than two minutes after lift-off in January 1986, killing all seven astronauts aboard, the agency had seemed lost in space. More often than not, shuttle launches had been delayed by glitches. Satellites had mysteriously stopped transmitting while in orbit. Space probes had broken down en route to Jupiter and Mars. Along with the setbacks came a crisis in the spirit of space adventure—a loss of vision and will to probe the unknown.
The Hubble repair mission proved that astronauts could handle construction and repair work in orbit, the skills essential to NASA’s plan to build and operate a space station by the end of the decade. Yet space extravaganzas no longer seemed enough to keep the public and Congress behind the space program. The questions that haunted NASA before the Hobble mission would not go away. Why did the U.S. need a space program? And should NASA, with its badly checkered history, be in charge?
While NASA was once an aggressive, creative engineering shop, it had grown into a bloated bureaucracy. A White House committee appointed by President Clinton to investigate NASA’S projected space station concluded its work in June, 1993, by recommending that both the station and NASA itself be redesigned. The revamping fell to NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, the ex-chief of the space division at TRW and one of only two Bush appointees to survive the change of presidential administrations. Realizing that NASA could justify itself only if it became more cost-effective and relevant to the economic needs of society, Goldin trimmed its annual expenditures, slashed the number of U.S. managers and laid plans to reduce shuttle operating costs. He also reconfigured the space station project by inviting Russia to join the program, which also included Japan, Canada, Italy and the European Space Agency. On the eve of Endeavour’s launch, Goldin claimed, “You can’t make progress unless you take risks.” In fixing the Hubble, NASA took the risk and got the job done.
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