With the completion of the Hubble Space Telescope repair mission yesterday, NASA has done more than just fix the orbiting telescope's blurry vision. It has shown a skeptical public it still knows how to get things done, and its apparent success should restore some luster to the space agency's tarnished image.
The minutely choreographed telescope repair schedule, which involved 11 separate operations and a record-breaking five spacewalks by two teams of astronauts, was the most complex space repair mission ever undertaken by NASA.
The mission's most complex repairs were executed with precision and speed.
Astronauts aboard the shuttle Endeavor installed two optics packages to correct the flaw in Hubble's misshapen mirror, replaced two pairs of gyroscopes that point the telescope and the solar panels, expanded the memory and speed of the telescope's on-board computer and replaced two magnetometers, which help guide the telescope by measuring Earth's magnetic field.
Shuttle astronauts showed their resourcefulness by improvising a cover for two sensor boxes atop the telescope that had deteriorated during the three years the Hubble space telescope has been in orbit. They also did repairs on a new solar electronics drive unit that involved manipulating half a dozen tiny screws through the thick gloves of their space suits. And they made it look easy. The successful completion of all their scheduled tasks, and then some, should go a long way toward demonstrating the agency's ability to manage complex repairs in space and boosting NASA's plan to build a manned space station.
Sue Rainwater, NASA's lead spacewalk coordinator, attributed the success to several factors, but mostly to old-fashioned hard work.
Yet NASA is not out of the woods, either technologically or politically. Hubble still must be proved to operate well. And even as Endeavor orbited the Earth at an altitude of 360 miles, a former NASA consultant expressed concerns about the reliability its solid-fuel booster rockets. The failure of a seal on one of the solid-fuel boosters was responsible for the explosion that destroyed the shuttle Challenger in 1986. Meanwhile, the proposed space station has been revised so often to comply with administration budget cuts that NASA's chief recently warned Congress it had become nearly impossible to plan future operations.
Nevertheless, the Hubble repair mission proved that astronauts can work in space. Baltimore, as home of the Space Telescope Institute at Johns Hopkins University, stands to become a world-class center for astronomy. There was a lot riding on this mission. Its success will surely pay handsome dividends for NASA, and this city.