Shaken by a series of mishaps -- a myopic space telescope, a missing satellite, an observatory that disappeared, NASA needed a hit. Beleaguered by an image of incompetence, the agency wanted to show the nation it had the "right stuff."
While the world watched, the Endeavour astronauts scored on both fronts. They fixed that $1.6 billion telescope with the precision of surgeons in a record number of spacewalks, and yesterday President Clinton told them, "We're going to do what we can to support you and support NASA and support the space program."
The presidential vote of confidence summed up in one sentence the hoped-for impact of the Hubble Space Telescope repair mission on the future of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The implications of the repair are already being voiced by congressional leaders, policy analysts and scientists.
"NASA had dug itself a fairly deep hole by its problems," said Dr. John M. Logsdon, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. "This has gone a long way to getting NASA out of this hole. It's been important to NASA in terms of restoring some sense of confidence and competence."
Coupled with the recent commitment by the Russians to jointly build a manned station in space, the success of the $629 million repair mission gives NASA a strong profile on which to build, said Dr. Logsdon.
In recent years, the embarrassing flubs in NASA's space program have been fodder for critics who questioned its purpose, the agency's abilities and it use of taxpayer funds.
Rep. George E. Brown Jr., chairman of the House's key space committee, said in a statement that the Hubble mission will go a long way in advancing the agency's pleas for a stable space budget.
"NASA has demonstrated that it is capable of successfully managing a complex task under grueling conditions in space -- a prerequisite for our next-generation space agenda," said the California Democrat.
High on that list is the agency's planned manned space station.
From the start, the space telescope repair mission was twinned with the agency's struggle to win approval for the $2 billion-a-year space station program.
The success of the Hubble repairs depended on the ability of four astronauts to perform complex and tedious assignments never before attempted in space.
It relied on their stamina to work for hours on end in bulky space suits. The crew's performance was nearly flawless, accomplishing even more than NASA had hoped.
"Anybody who thinks NASA doesn't have the right stuff must have been sleeping nights last week," said Edward J. Weiler, chief Hubble program scientist at NASA headquarters.
Plus for space station
Now, as the seven-member Endeavour crew relaxes on its only (( day off since the mission was launched Dec. 2, their Hubble achievements are being translated into gains for the idea of building a manned space station. The crew returns to Earth Monday.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who chairs the influential Appropriations subcommittee that handles NASA's budget, said the astronauts'ability to perform complex technical tasks in space shows that a space station "is not just a scientific possibility, it is a reality."
Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV, who has been skeptical of the space station program, said the "stunning" achievements of the Endeavour crew "will have a substantial effect" on the future of that program.
"This will bolster their efforts," said the West Virginia Democrat, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on space. "I think it will be harder for people to refer to [NASA's] weaknesses or NASA's inabilities, which is not to say NASA won't have more problems."
"Obviously a lot was riding on the success [of the Hubble mission], a lot more than whether we could see the stars," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican and member of the House subcommittee on space. "The whole manned space program was in the balance. They not only saved the telescope, they saved the whole manned space program."
Not everyone is as confident.
Rep. Steve Schiff, a member of a House subcommittee on space, said he has warned NASA officials privately and publicly that "if matters aren't turned around, the space station, specifically and much more, may the go the way of the Superconducting Super Collider -- the way of oblivion."
'NASA needed this'
The New Mexico Republican said the space station's future is not yet certain.
"NASA needed this one," he said, of the successful Hubble repair mission. "The entire space program has been in serious jeopardy as a target for spending reduction in the last several years."
To Rep. Dick Zimmer, the Hubble telescope is the kind of science project NASA should be undertaking. And though the New Jersey Republican was "delighted" with the repair mission's success, he said that unfortunately it may actually sustain the space station program.
"The Hubble telescope is pure science and it's good science and important science," said Mr. Zimmer. "The space station is performing negligible science at grossly excessive cost."
Claude R. Canizares, the director of space research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the chair of NASA's space science advisory committee, said the Hubble repair mission worked for the very reasons NASA said it worked. It was well planned. The crew had extensive training. The project was scrutinized by people inside and outside the agency.
"If the space station is planned realistically, with the same philosophy, we can do it," Dr. Canizares said.