Lobbying effort fuels physicist's hopes for second launch of Astro observatory


Sam Durrance thought he'd never fly in space again after his long-delayed trip with the $150 million Astro observatory aboard the space shuttle Columbia in mid-December.

Originally scheduled for as many as six flights, the NASA package of ultraviolet and X-ray telescopes appeared early this year to be doomed to just the one mission by budget cuts and infrequent shuttle launches.

But the Johns Hopkins astrophysicist and many of his Astro colleagues are now cautiously optimistic about another flight, thanks to the science achieved in December, heavy lobbying by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and a post-Hubble appreciation for "small" projects by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

"They had begun to disassemble Astro down at the Cape, but they stopped, and that's a good sign," said Dr. Durrance, 47. "I'm really hopeful it will happen. Believe me, I'd be delighted to go."

Senator Mikulski, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee overseeing NASA's budget, said she expected it "to become clear" within the next two weeks whether a $30 million Astro-2 could be funded, as Congress and the space agency make hard choices about the fiscal 1992 budget.

"I have encouraged, jawboned, whatever, to get NASA to take another look at Astro," she said. "We need to focus on small science with big payoffs.

"Astro exists, it has proven its worth, and it would be a waste of dollars and science opportunity not to fly again."

Three of the four Astro telescopes that rode in the open cargo bay during the nine-day mission are Maryland-built: the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope, and the Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope and the Broad Band X-Ray Telescope, both from Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

And the two payload specialists who trained as astronauts and operated the observatory in orbit are Maryland residents: Dr. Durrance and Ronald Parise, an astrophysicist with Computer Sciences Corp. in Silver Spring.

Lennard Fisk, NASA's associate administrator for space science, said at a briefing this spring at Kennedy Space Center in Florida that the agency was giving Astro "a second thought, some time to take another look at it."

And Edward Weiler, program scientist for both Astro and the DTC Hubble Space Telescope at NASA headquarters in Washington, puts the chances of another flight at 50-50, with a decision to be made by July 1 and the earliest launch opportunity in October 1993.

"If we can fit it in without disrupting a lot of other science, it's OK with me. If it hurts other science, I'm not so interested," said Dr. Weiler.

"I don't hear the scientists complaining about the 1993 &r; possibility. They're swamped with data from Astro-1."

The abundance and quality of that data have surprised observers of the troubled flight, which suffered computer breakdowns and pointing-system problems that forced the Columbia astronauts to abandon many of the mission's intended celestial targets.

"We got incredibly good results despite just having a modest fraction of the targets, a reduced amount of exposure time and, because of launch delays, a time of year when some prime targets were no longer visible," said Goddard astronomer Stephen Maran, a member of the Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope team.

Arthur Davidsen -- lead scientist for the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope and a strong advocate of another Astro flight -- mentioned successes such as Hopkins telescope data that cast major doubt on a popular theory that neutrinos, subatomic particles in space, could account for the universe's missing mass.

Another instrument, built by Arthur Code and his team at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, obtained the first detailed evidence of the nature of interstellar dust.

And new results -- including observations of Comet Levy, Jupiter, the Andromeda galaxy, binary stars and quasars -- are scheduled to be presented at a special Astro session May 28 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle.

"The proof of the pudding is the science coming out of this mission," said Theodore Gull, mission scientist for Astro at Goddard. "And I know we could at least double that amount of science on a reflight. The bugs have been worked out."

But he and other Astro scientists recognize NASA's dilemma: a proposed $1 billion in cuts to President Bush's $14 billion budget request for the space agency, while the space station program is seeking up to $2.6 billion annually for at least the rest of the decade.

"Everyone is assuming that if they preserve the space station, there will be huge cuts in the science budget," Dr. Davidsen said. "So, unless they find more money, Astro-2 would possibly have to come out of some other science project, and no one wants that."

In fact, there are scientists who don't support Astro-2, including Kenneth Nordsieck, the University of Wisconsin astronomy professor who trained as the backup payload specialist to colleagues Durrance and Parise.

"At $150 million, Astro wasn't a 'small' project to me, and the shuttle has proven it's no place to do science," said Dr. Nordsieck, who is designing a more modest ultraviolet instrument to fly aboard an expendable rocket.

He also has no interest in returning to astronaut training. "Even though I didn't get to fly, it was a great, rewarding experience," he said.

"But it really does require a commitment, and I lived through years of delays doing virtually no science at all."

Arthur Code, his boss at Wisconsin, agrees.

"I spent 13 years waiting for the first one," he said. "If we signed up for a new one, and there were delays, it would be a frustration we couldn't really take. There's some threshold of pain."

And Becky Durrance "has mixed feelings" about her husband's re-upping for astronaut duty, which kept him on the road almost constantly from 1984 until January of this year, with the couple and their two children relocating twice to be near Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"From a personal standpoint, as far as our family goes, I think one time is enough," she said.

"I know from experience that once they set a date, the chances of it going, even in that year, are not likely."

But Dr. Durrance remembers the giddy sensation of weightlessness, the stunning beauty of the Earth through the shuttle windows and the sheer exhilaration of joining the company of space travelers, one of the most exclusive clubs in the world.

"Once you do it you want to go back," he said.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad