When the space shuttle Endeavor lifts off to save the Hubble Space Telescope this year, billions of dollars and NASA's reputation will be riding on the mission.
This will be more than just an expensive repair job in an exotic locale. One of the world's most advanced -- and expensive -- scientific satellites, the space telescope is also one of NASA's most-publicized failures.
Hubble can't see with the acuity that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration expected for its $1.4 billion investment of American tax dollars.
It has a telescope's equivalent of limited night vision. The main mirror that is supposed to bounce images through the telescope is misshapen, so a lot of the light from stars and galaxies is scattered and lost. Also, the two broad, winglike solar panels attached to the telescope's sides start shuddering every 90 minutes as they heat up and cool off while moving into and out of the Earth's shadow.
Imagine trying to use binoculars to watch a distant mountaintop while wearing sunglasses and standing in the back of a pickup truck jouncing over a stretch of washboard road. That sums up some of the major headaches Hubble astronomers face -- problems that have disrupted careers, embarrassed NASA and dismayed the public.
Now, more than 800 NASA employees, contractors, engineers and scientists are directly involved in the $544 million, seven-day Endeavor flight, scheduled to lift off in early December. Many people have staked their dreams and careers on the outcome; here are the stories of three of them:
* First, there's the detail-obsessed astronaut who will renovate the telescope during at least three days of spacewalks: MR. FIXIT.
* There's the Wisconsin astronomer whose career reached a pinnacle when one of his designs was chosen to ride aboard Hubble. His design succeeded -- yet now his creation must be removed because of Hubble's problems: DISPIRITED VOYAGER.
* Finally, there's the Baltimore engineer whose design for fitting the troubled telescope with corrective lenses will be the key to Hubble's salvation: THE EYE DOCTOR.
HOUSTON -- Meet the top grease monkey in NASA's last-chance garage.
In a room crammed with gray metal desks at the Johnson Space Center, Story Musgrave sits cradling a container of black coffee in his hands. His glinting blue eyes restlessly scan the room. Suffering from a head cold, he talks in a nasal monotone about spare parts, power tools and balky bolts.
He could be the most overqualified mechanic in America.
The 57-year-old Marine Corps veteran is a surgeon with a medical degree from Columbia University, an MBA from the University of California at Los Angeles and a master's degree in literature from the University of Houston.
He has made some 460 parachute jumps, logged more than 17,000 hours piloting 160 different types of aircraft, penned poetry and worked as a mathematician. The 25-year NASA veteran has served on four previous shuttle missions. He took the first spacewalk from a shuttle, the Challenger, in 1983.
Still, no one could accuse him of overconfidence as he prepares to lead a team of astronauts who will try to repair the telescope in space.
"The whole thing is a nightmare, frankly," he said. "I'm scared. I've been running scared since I've got this assignment."
Partly, Dr. Musgrave's fear is a calculated strategy -- it's his way of trying to anticipate the unanticipated. Partly, he's just being realistic.
Satellites can be awful tough to fix. Last May, a shuttle crew tried to grab the Intelsat communications satellite, stuck in a low orbit, to strap a rocket engine on it and boost it higher. But the grappling bar designed for the job didn't work. After two failed efforts, three astronauts grabbed the 12-by-17-foot, 4 1/2-ton satellite by hand.
Last August, another shuttle team failed to reel out a $379 million tethered satellite. The experiment was designed to test whether satellites could be flown like kites from the shuttle's bay. The 12 ,, 1/2-mile-long tether snagged just 850 feet from the orbiter, getting hung up on a bolt added shortly before launch to strengthen the reel.
The Hubble team members are preparing for the worst as they train to replace the shuddering solar panels with new ones and to install new mirrors to correct Hubble's vision.
"Our ability to get this thing done depends on how creative and accommodative we are to the unknown," Dr. Musgrave said. "There are going to be surprises. Whether we get the job done or not depends upon how major they are."
Dr. Musgrave and the three other members of the Hubble repair crew -- Air Force Lt. Col. Thomas Akers and civilian mission specialists Kathryn Thornton and Jeffrey Hoffman -- will face a series of practical, nuts-and-bolts problems.
While astronauts use a robot arm to grab Hubble out of orbit, they must keep the 42 1/2-foot telescope, which weighs about as much as a Mass Transit Administration bus, from slamming into and damaging the shuttle.
The astronauts will have to be careful not to bump the telescope. Any contact could knock loose some space corrosion -- metal turned to a gritty dust by exposure to radiation. That dust might drift onto and cloud the Hubble's surgically spotless mirrors.
Even the plastic fabric fasteners astronauts use to secure tools to their space suits imperil Hubble. Tiny flecks of plastic fly off when the fasteners are ripped open. These could jam the delicate mechanisms that must position the corrective mirrors the astronauts must install.
And when the astronauts replace the Wide Field Planetary Camera -- which snaps most of the pretty pictures that appear in newspapers and the evening news -- they must be careful not to bump its "pickoff" mirror. This mirror intercepts or picks off light from behind the telescope's 8-foot main mirror and directs the light to the camera.
"I am obsessively compulsive about the procedures to absolutely guarantee that we will not touch that mirror," Dr. Musgrave said. "I mean, I look at every finger. I look at where the feet are. I look at where the arms are. I look at where the hands are. I choreograph that thing [so] that we are in total control of every motion."
NASA's space mechanics can't afford to be sloppy. A wrong move and one of the telescope's five main scientific instruments -- two cameras, a light meter and two spectrographs (devices that determine what stars and galaxies are made of by analyzing their light) -- could instantly become space scrap.
"You cannot just say, 'Hey there's a bolt and I put 22 turns on it and that's my job in life,' " he said. "If you're going to cover the unexpected, [you ask,] 'What happens when I've done 15 turns and the wrench can't drive it any more? What's going on?' You've got to have incredible detailed knowledge of every mechanism."
For Dr. Musgrave, this mission isn't just about the tools. Of course, it's also about NASA saving face and the nation again weighing the cost and value of the shuttle program. But to him, it means more: "To fix the optics is fantastically important, science-wise, to the agency, to the country," Dr. Musgrave said. "But it's also something I feel in the soul."
As a boy growing up on a 1,000-acre dairy farm in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts, he used to lie at night in the plow rows, staring up at the heavens, trying to figure out what role he played in the universe.
"Looking at the stars has always been a very important part of my life." And Hubble can look deeper than any other telescope.
"I have thought of that instrument as contributing to my personal ideas about what my place in the universe is -- what it is to be human," he said. "It's a lot bigger than just another form of technology. It's not just another satellite."
Dr. Musgrave said part of him relishes his rescue-mission assignment, called the "Holy Grail" of shuttle flights by some fellow astronauts.
"I'd rather [Hubble] had no problems," he said. "But given them, do I like that kind of challenge? Yes. I like the heat in the kitchen. That's one of the reasons that I'm here."
MADISON, WIS. -- To correct the mirror problem causing Hubble's distorted vision, the astronauts must install a set of new mirrors: Hubble needs glasses.
Something must come out to make room for this new equipment. That something is a big chunk of Robert C. Bless' career.
Dr. Bless, 64, is a professor of astronomy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The Gainesville, Fla., native's interest in space telescopes began when he was a physics student in college during the 1940s.
He eventually joined the team that built one of the first space telescopes, the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, which flew in and operated for four years. Then in 1971, Dr. Bless started working in earnest with NASA on plans for another large orbiting observatory -- a project that later became the Hubble.
His specialty, photometry -- bascially, the study of the changes in brightness of light given off by stars and galaxies -- wasn't considered sexy by most other astronomers. So he was surprised in 1977 when a NASA panel picked his proposal for one of Hubble's five main scientific instruments. It became one of the greatest achievements in his career.
For Hubble, Dr. Bless and a team of scientists in Wisconsin designed and built a high-speed photometer -- a light meter that detects and measures flickering light from pulsars. A pulsar is thought to be the core remaining after a star has exploded in a supernova. These small celestial bodies throw beams of radio waves or visible light that sweep the sky like the beacon from a lighthouse.
Dr. Bless hoped to use the Hubble's photometer to discover more of these distant objects, spinning and blinking up to 1 million times a second -- far too rapidly to be detected by the naked eye or less powerful ground-based devices.
But that's not possible now.
The Hubble's mirror flaw -- its edge is misshapen -- scatters and loses the faint, precious light detected from pulsars. And the telescope jitters so much that it doesn't reliably keep pulsars in -- the photometer's field of view.
In other words, because of Hubble's troubles, sometimes the photometer can't see.
"Between the spherical aberration [misshapen mirror] and the jitter, it is very difficult for us to recover the quality of data we were trying to get," Dr. Bless said. "One without the other would have been OK. But both of them together really kill us. We can still do interesting stuff, but nothing compared to what we hoped to do."
What makes matters worse is that, unlike so much of Hubble's hardware, the photometer works flawlessly. It was the only Hubble instrument built on a university campus by the scientists who planned to use it, he pointed out. "The others were built at places like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Martin Marietta," he said. "And we deliberately made it as simple as possible, so it would be reliable. So far it has been reliable."
But there's not enough room inside Hubble to keep all the existing instruments and add corrective ones. Dr. Story Musgrave and his astronaut team will bring the photometer back to Earth, where it will be studied for the effects of exposure to space.
Dr. Bless is not a complainer. He agreed his $5 million photometer is the most logical piece of hardware to remove from Hubble to make way for what might be called the Big Fix. The others collect information of use to broader scientific audiences than does his creation.
"There has to be a sacrificial lamb," he said. " . . . We're all big boys and we all know the risks involved. I've spent my entire career in space astronomy. This isn't the first problem or less-than-happy outcome that I've had."
But his stoicism isn't airtight. Asked whether the loss of the device would disrupt people's careers, he gave a ragged-edged laugh.
"Are you kidding?" he said. "Obviously, we're all quite disappointed. A great part of my career has been involved in the space telescope. It's a huge disappointment."
THE EYE DOCTOR
For Jim Crocker, it was the most memorable shower scene since "Psycho."
At a Munich hotel in September 1990, when he went to take a shower, he found he could fold back the shower head and slide it up and down along a steel rod, to adjust for height.
"The maid had left it down, so I slid it up," he said. Then he swung the shower head around.
Suddenly, he knew how to put contact lenses on the weak-visioned Hubble.
"It all clicked. . . . I said, 'This will work.' "
The white-haired, 43-year-old electrical engineer with the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Institute was in Europe attending a conference on how to fix the Hubble's 8-foot-wide primary mirror. As head of the institute's advanced programs office, the gentle-speaking, cheerful engineer had listened to scores of proposals for fixing Hubble during the late summer and early fall of 1990.
More than 100 suggestions were kicked around. Maybe, one scientist said, the astronauts could stuff a kind of inner tube around the edge of the main mirror, inflate it and push the mirror into the correct shape. Another suggested bending the mirror's edge using heaters.
"Some of the ideas were quite exotic," said Mr. Crocker, who has degrees from Georgia Tech and Johns Hopkins University and who worked on NASA's Skylab project in the early 1970s. Most were too risky, too complicated or simply impossible.
No one ever seriously considered bringing Hubble back to Earth to replace the flawed mirror; the ride could wreck the telescope. And the cost of two shuttle flights to fetch and return it could cost up to $2 billion -- more than Hubble's original construction cost of about $1.4 billion.
"As it progressed, it was starting to become clear to everybody that this was going to be a really difficult job," Mr. Crocker said from his office at the institute, on the Hopkins campus.
The late Murk Bottema, a physicist, former Hopkins researcher and engineering consultant, came up with the cheapest, fastest and most practical plan.
His "optical solution" involved inserting 10 mirrors, each no larger than a quarter, behind the 8-foot main mirror. These tiny mirrors could intercept and correct the light sent astray by the incorrectly ground mirror. They could bounce the light squarely into the eyes of Hubble's cameras and spectrographs to produce reliable data on distant stars -- and clearly focused pictures of space.
But how would astronauts -- wearing bulky suits -- install the new mirrors?
The open area behind the main mirror, where the new mirrors would have to fit, is only a couple of feet deep and about as big across as a large pizza.
Mr. Crocker thought about it as he started to take his shower in Munich. Then came inspiration.
"I could see Murk Bottema's optics on the shower head," he said.
What was needed, he realized, was a device with arms that could start out compact and then unfold behind the primary mirror. It was dubbed COSTAR, for Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement. The key was that COSTAR could be installed from below, through an opening created by removing Dr. Bless' photometer.
So Mr. Crocker drew preliminary sketches. He studied more than 2,000 photographs of the Hubble's internal spaces. Then, back home in Phoenix in northern Baltimore County, he rummaged through his son's room and came up with a set of plastic, snap-together construction toys.
"The front of the box said [the toy] was used by NASA engineers to design the space station, which I doubted," Mr. Crocker said.
But, what the heck.
He sat down and built a 2-foot scale model of his holder for Bottema's mirrors. And when he delivered it to NASA late in 1990, it was a hit. His snap-together, fold-up tower became the model for a $40 million precision instrument.
There are 12 tiny motors in the 2-foot-high, graphite-epoxy tower. The motors move the arms that carry the mirrors.
"It's made like a Swiss watch," Mr. Crocker said. "It has to move very, very tiny amounts at a time. . . . We have to position these little mirrors to an accuracy within 1/2,000th of a human hair to get the precision that we need."
Mr. Crocker seems cheerful, though haggard and haunted by uncertainty.
Fixing Hubble has become "the biggest challenge of my career. . . . I'm doing what I trained to do all my life," said Mr. Crocker. "But it's real hard. There are some mixed emotions. And . . . it's going to get worse and worse" as the shuttle flight date approaches.
"Now when I take a shower," Mr. Crocker said, "I ask: 'What is it that we missed? What have we done wrong?' When you think about what can go wrong . . . well, you have to be an optimist."
DOUGLAS BIRCH is a science reporter for The Sun.