Hubble's Costly Flaws


Perkins-Elmer, the Hughes Aircraft Co. subsidiary that manufactured the nearsighted Hubble Space Telescope mirror, has agreed to pay the government part of the cost of repairing the faulty spacecraft. The Justice Department has reached a $25 million settlement that a NASA official called "fair and reasonable."

That judgment may be premature. It will cost the government about $150 million to fix the Hubble telescope now that it's already in orbit, a figure that doesn't even include the cost of the shuttle repair mission itself or any unforeseen problems.

The $2 billion Hubble telescope was launched in April 1990. Two months later, scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore discovered that the primary mirror was incorrectly formed, rendering the telescope unable to see faint objects or pick out individual stars in densely packed star clusters.

The flaw necessitated a complicated rescheduling of planned observing projects. And it left NASA officials scrambling to answer the obvious question: Why wasn't the problem detected earlier, during extensive tests carried out by the company that manufactured the mirror?

Last year federal officials uncovered evidence that Perkins-Elmer should have known that the mirror was defective and that company officials may have tried to conceal clues of the flaw by passing on doctored test data to NASA. Investigators discovered the company altered standard test procedures and discounted or ignored results indicating the mirror contained spherical aberration, a form of distortion that results in smeared images.

Potentially the most serious allegation was that the company cut off a portion of one test report sent to NASA to make it appear that the mirror met specifications. The cut-off portion clearly revealed the mirror had significant flaws.

A $25 million settlement is a pittance compared to the overall cost of the repair bill footed by NASA. Even under the best-case scenario for the repair mission scheduled for December, it would appear that Perkins-Elmer is getting off lightly. Meanwhile, NASA has learned a very expensive lesson from this episode.

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