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Hubble trip a chance to justify huge costs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"The Space Telescope will be the eighth wonder of the world."

-- NASA administrator James Beggs, to the House Appropriations subcommittee, 1984.

"It ought to be, at that price."

6* -- U.S. Rep. Edward P. Boland, D-Mass.

(Quoted in "The Space Telescope" by Robert W. Smith)

In the 30 years since America's foremost scientists first proposed launching a large telescope into space, the nation's taxpayers have spent nearly $3 billion to realize that dream.

And they haven't finished paying for it.

By the year 2005, the culmination of the 15-year life span of the Hubble Space Telescope, the NASA project will have cost at least $6.5 billion, agency figures show. And that doesn't include $32 million spent on preliminary studies between 1965 and 1976, before Hubble became a fully funded program for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, according to federal records.

On Wednesday, NASA plans to launch one of its most arduous and complex space shuttle missions ever: to service the Hubble telescope and repair its misshapen primary mirror, a flaw discovered within two months of the telescope's April 1990 launch. How well the mission goes should go a long way in determining America's return on its investment in Hubble -- the telescope with the power to help astronomers uncover the origins and destiny of the universe.

But it also may spell trouble for the future of other large, costly projects, such as NASA's planned space station.

"I'm sure we'll all consume a lot of Rolaids during this mission, because it is high stakes and so much is riding on the shoulders of the crew of Endeavour," said Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, chairwoman of the Senate appropriations committee that oversees NASA's budget. "But they are among the best America has to offer for work in space."

The way Edward J. Weiler sees it, Americans each pay about two cents a week to cover the annual operating costs of the Hubble Space Telescope. Its worth extends beyond scientific discoveries, said Dr. Weiler, a space telescope scientist at NASA.

"Hubble has the capability, along with other big programs, of doing something more important," said Dr. Weiler. "That is inspiration to youth."

Added Robert W. Smith, the official historian of the Hubble Space Telescope: "We haven't gotten far enough into the program to make any kind of general projections on whether it was worth it or not."

Bold science is expensive

Named for the 20th-century astronomer Edwin P. Hubble, the 43-foot-long telescope represents Big Science at its boldest: The largest, most complex space observatory ever built, it offered astronomers a chance to peer into galaxies billions of light years away and make important scientific discoveries.

Almost from its inception, however, the Hubble telescope fell victim to the politics and pragmatics of funding such projects, an annual endeavor.

Every year, NASA administrators had to defend the program on Capitol Hill. Initial estimates proved to be woefully inadequate. Repeatedly, they faced congressional demands to reduce the cost of the project. In two early program reviews, the General Accounting Office asked NASA to provide Congress with the total "lifecycle" costs of the project.

Meanwhile, management problems and cost overruns dogged the project, according to federal officials and records.

"The job taken on was more difficult than people realized, which is often the case in high-technology programs. It's very hard to estimate how much it's going to cost up front, when they haven't been built before," said Dr. Weiler.

Even after the telescope was built, the project ran into difficulty. The 1986 launch of Hubble was scuttled because of the explosion of the shuttle Challenger. While NASA sought to repair its devastated shuttle program, Hubble sat in a special storage facility in California at a cost of $8 million a month, according to congressional records.

Finally, following a successful 1989 shuttle flight, the telescope was launched into space in April 1990. Two months later, the problem with Hubble's 94.5-inch primary mirror was discovered. At that time, the project's cost was put at about $1.5 billion, according to federal records. Once adjusted for inflation, the cost of the project represented twice its original 1978 estimate of million, NASA told Congress in July 1990.

"Hubble may be yet another example of what happens when we run highly complex research and development programs on tight-fisted budgets," Rep. George E. Brown Jr., a California Democrat, noted during a 1990 congressional hearing.

Vital opportunity

With the telescope's main mirror flawed, NASA knew an attempt to clear Hubble's blurry vision would cost the agency money it hadn't anticipated spending.

If detected prior to launch, the repair would have cost $2 million, an investigation into the cause of the flawed mirror found. But with Hubble orbiting 355 miles above Earth, NASA decided to fix it during the planned 1993 servicing mission.

"The Hubble telescope's repair gives NASA the chance to turn the corner on many of the problems it has faced in recent years," said Senator Mikulski. "The new contact lens Hubble is to get will restore the telescope's capability to achieve almost all of the science for which it was originally built. That's good for both our scientists and taxpayers."

NASA officials have put the cost of the servicing mission at $251 million. That includes the new corrective optics, equipment testing, software development and replacement of other faulty or worn-out equipment on Hubble. Of that figure, $86.3 million can be directly attributed to the problem with the primary mirror. It represents money spent to investigate the flaw, consult experts on how to fix Hubble and build the corrective optics, and independently verify that the new instruments work, according to NASA figures.

To reach Hubble, the seven-member crew will travel aboard the shuttle Endeavour. An average shuttle launch costs $369 million, and NASA spent an additional $9 million outfitting Endeavour for the Hubble flight. That puts the cost of the mission at about $629 million, according to agency estimates. It represents a fraction of the $2.97 billion spent on Hubble since 1978.

The money -- slightly more than the $2.2 billion cost of a B-1 bomber -- includes everything from the price of bolts on the telescope to the $30 million annual cost to operate the Space Telescope Science Institute, the Baltimore center of Hubble research, said Kenneth W. Ledbetter, Hubble program manager.

"We don't have any fat. They've carved it off," said Mr. Ledbetter.

(The $2.9 billion figure does not take into account the European Space Agency's $160 million contribution to the project and the salaries of about 150 federal workers.)

NASA officials said they have spent no more to fix Hubble than the budget for the planned servicing mission. To hold to that cost, the space agency scaled back or delayed other projects planned for Hubble's future.

Comparing price tags

The annual operating cost of the Hubble program is about $300 million, said Mr. Ledbetter. With a dozen years left on its clock, Hubble operations would cost about $3.6 billion. Add to that the $2.9 billion spent so far, and the project will have cost taxpayers at least $6.5 billion, according to Mr. Ledbetter.

How does that compare with other big space projects?

Greg Davidson, a NASA program manager, looked at some big-ticket space programs and adjusted their development, launch and operation costs to 1994 dollars. They were: the 1976 Viking mission to Mars ($4.1 billion), the Surveyor lunar lander ($3.7 billion), and the Voyager spacecraft that was launched in 1977 ($1.9 billion).

With the corrective optics, Hubble "has the potential to be a tremendously cost-effective program over its life cycle," said Mr. Davidson.

But that depends greatly on the success of the December mission.

Even if the astronauts accomplish the difficult and complex repairs ahead of them, it will be at least six weeks before NASA can determine if the Big Fix worked.

"It is hard to imagine that NASA could have done more to prepare for this mission," said William W. Crocker III, the chief evaluator on a General Accounting Office review of the servicing mission. "We have enough invested in this thing now; it's probably worth the effort to go up and do the repairs, because there is more than repairs involved. The experience that NASA will gain from this type of project is probably well worth the investment."

But, Mr. Crocker said, "Costs will become a factor on this program, depending on the degree of success that they have."

Flight Days One through Three

1. Day One: Shuttle Endeavour liftoff set for Wednesday at 4:57 a.m. EST. Fly to temporary orbit 357 miles high. Further delay will postpone flight until Jan. 10.

2. Day Two: Begin race to catch up with Hubble Space Telescope. Check out shuttle's remote manipulator arm. Complete arm failure might scuttle the mission.

3. Day Three: Rendezvous with Hubble at 368 miles. (Endeavour carries too little fuel for a second try if this attempt fails.) Grasp telescope with manipulator arm and secure in payload bay.

Flight Day Four

4. Replace at least two of three failed gyroscopes that help Hubble track stars -- a top priority. Astronauts Jeffrey Hoffman and Story Musgrave open service doors. One astronaut loosens bolts and disconnects electrical plugs to remove a gyroscope. Second astronaut assists. Install replacement. Repeat for second gyro. Time: about 3 1/2 hours.

5. Replace two of three electronic control units (ECUs), the gyroscopes' brains. Open service door, remove four bolts, disconnect electrical cable and remove ECUs. Replace related fuses.

Flight Day Five

6. Replace solar panels, which supply electrical power. A design flaw causes them to shudder each time Hubble passes between sunlight and darkness, interfering with aiming. If panels don't retract, astronauts can do it by hand, or throw them overboard. Latch new panel to telescope and plug in electrical connectors. Rotate telescope, repeat for second panel. Time: about 5 hours.

Flight Day Six

7. Replace Wide Field/Planetary Camera with improved model containing corrective optics to cancel flaw in telescope's primary mirror -- a top priority. Standing on manipulator arm, one astronaut pulls 610-pound camera from telescope and stows it. Take new camera from protective enclosure and insert into telescope. Time: about 4 1/4 hours.

8. Tilt Hubble 15 degrees to allow access to two malfunctioning magnetometers, which measure telescope's orientation within Earth's magnetic field. Astronauts attach amd connect replacements.

Flight Day Seven

9. Install COSTAR -- a top priority. Its mirrors should cancel primary mirror flaw and transfer corrected images to three Hubble instruments. To make room, Thornton and Akers first remove Hubble's 487-pound High Speed Photometer, which will be carried back to Earth. Install COSTAR, attach four electrical connectors and a grounding strap. Tighten latches. Time: about 3 1/4 hours.

10. Install a new 386 computer co-processor to augment memory capacity and processing speed of the telescope's flight computer. One of six computer memory units has failed.

Flight Day Eight

10. Replace solar array drive electronics, which help point solar panels at the sun. One of two units has failed due to overheating. Hoffman and Musgrave open a service door, loosen six small bolts, disconnect power lines and replace with improved unit.

11. Install relay device to restore full electrical power to Goddard High Resolution Spectrometer. Half the instrument has been shut down due to electrical problems.

Flight Day Nine

Unroll new solar arrays and recharge Hubble's batteries. Re-deploy high-gain antenna. Open aperture door. If everything works, lift and deploy the telescope. Fire thrusters to move shuttle away, maneuvering to avoid damage to telescope.

Flight Days Ten through Twelve

Day Ten: Off-duty day. May be rescheduled earlier in the mission to give crew needed rest before completing spacewalks.

Day Eleven: Prepare shuttle for return to Earth.

Day Twelve: Re-entry. Landing scheduled for 3:33 a.m. EST Dec. 12 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Alternate site is Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Wide Field/Planetary Camera 2

Under development since 1985 for installation during the planned 1993 servicing mission. It will replace the original, which studies bright objects such as nearby planets, star clusters and galaxies. Scientists modified WF/PC2's design to include a relay mirror polished to cancel the flaw. Carries fewer cameras, but designers added devices for fine-focusing in orbit. New cameras will provide improved sensitivity, especially to ultraviolet light.

COSTAR

COSTAR contains corrective optics for three Hubble instruments. Once installed, COSTAR will deploy a movable "arm," or optical bench. If it fails, astronauts can deploy it manually. From the bench, four arms will flip out, placing 10 coin-size mirrors into the light stream from the telescope's primary mirror, correcting Hubble's focus and reflecting the light into each of three adjoining instruments. Ground controllers can adjust the mirrors' alignment and focus. Scientists will gain a more sharply focused view of faint, distant objects.

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