Vision for Hubble, hope for Nasa: A successful space mission has staved off the demise of the US agency, says Susan Watts

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The Independent Online
BY THE early hours of this morning, Jeff Hoffman and Story Musgrave should have completed some minor maintenance on the dollars 1.5bn Hubble space telescope, the final act in one of the most complex and successful space missions since the Apollo programme of the Sixties sent men to the Moon.

The success of the Hubble mission has brought Nasa, the US space agency, back from the verge of extinction. It has had a series of high profile failures in recent months - among them, the Mars Observer, which reached the red planet after months of travelling (and millions of dollars of the taxpayers' money) then forgot to stop.

Now television viewers around the world have witnessed a rescue that was tagged 'mission impossible' clock up success after success. The 11-day task - to make Hubble see clearly - included an unprecedented series of five spacewalks outside the shuttle Endeavour. Each sortie into the void lasted between six and seven hours, and each proceeded with remarkable ease.

It would be noteworthy for an engineering task of this complexity to proceed so smoothly on Earth. In space - where the delicate work has been likened to fixing a car while hanging upside down, wearing ski mittens and travelling at 17,000 miles per hour - the achievement is almost incredible.

Nasa's own task force, convened to look at the technical feasibility of the mission, was doubtful the astronauts could pull it off. Story Musgrave, who led the team of spacewalkers, said the crew had drawn up 150 contingency plans. It was literally a life or death operation: one cynical doubter sketched a doom-laden scenario in which the telescope might crush one of the astronauts between its 11.3 tonne bulk and the sides of the shuttle.

On the ground, Nasa would have claimed a triumph if the crew had completed half its list of jobs. Yesterday, the team cleared the final hurdle, sliding into place a box of coin-sized mirrors to correct the blurred vision of the telescope. Tomorrow, the European representative - Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier - will grasp Hubble with the shuttle's robot arm and 'lift' it gently back into space. All this has been wonderful television: the crisp images of astronauts with screwdrivers working on the shiny blue and gold exterior of the telescope made a marked contrast to the fuzzy pictures transmitted from previous space adventures.

The success of the mission has justified the view that manned spaceflight has a role in future exploration of what lies beyond our atmosphere. The crew's labours were vital to the army of scientists who will use data from Hubble to answer some of the most fundamental questions about our Universe. How old is it? How big is it? What will happen to it in years to come?

For Nasa, the dollars 600m repair job was also a matter of life or death. Failure would almost certainly have assigned the agency to the rubbish tip. Congress is finally beginning to address the problem of the US budget deficit, a burden that will be passed on for a couple of generations. Nasa offered a tempting target for politicians from all shades of the ideological spectrum. Congressmen have for some time been openly critical of what they see as the agency's record of mismanagement.

The Hubble saga - the project was first mooted in the early Seventies - has been one woeful example. From the start, it seemed nothing could go right. The launch, pencilled in for 1983, was continually delayed, in part by the 1986 Challenger disaster which killed all seven crew. The telescope finally entered orbit in 1990. It was intended to view stars and galaxies a hundred times more clearly than from Earth. But it soon became apparent that the main mirror contained a serious defect; the images sent back were blurred. Failure to detect such a glaring error, and the many other more minor problems with Hubble that led to this week's 'sticking plaster' mission, have fuelled doubts about Nasa's competence.

But Nasa's problems were not just technical. Even as its astronauts regained a grip on Hubble this week, the news broke that Nasa had been the subject of an FBI sting - 'Operation Lightning Strike'. The 18-month investigation allegedly found fraud and corruption deeply rooted within the space agency.

The FBI reportedly made videotapes of contractors accepting cash for illegal deals. Agents set up a false company selling medical equipment and tried to bribe Nasa employees and space contractors to buy their products. Nasa would be overcharged and all those involved would split the profits. The operation has implicated half a dozen Nasa employees, several dozen people outside the agency and at least two aerospace companies. The first criminal charges are expected early in the New Year.

So where does this leave Nasa? Its next big project is the permanently manned orbiting space station. Conceived in the glory days of the Reagan presidency and the atmosphere of a reviving Cold War, it was originally a grandiose project. The Soviets already had their own small space station, called Mir (Peace), so Ronald Reagan decreed that the Land of the Free should have a bigger and better version - named Freedom - to show the Soviet bloc what free enterprise economies could achieve.

But the US economy could not afford Freedom and the design has been successively cut back until, in a neat historical irony, the US decided to go into partnership with Russia. In the days before the Endeavour launch, Bill Clinton secured a deal with the Russians under which the two countries will collaborate on building the now-international space station. The name has been dropped and this unique arrangement should save the US some dollars 2bn.

A successful repair mission for Hubble, along with the joint venture with the Russians, should elicit sympathy from Congress for the agency and the space station - its raison d'etre.

Even in its myopic state, the Hubble telescope has performed some arresting science. In a couple of months, when its first unblurred images are released, we will know if Hubble will fulfil its original goal of looking to the distant edges of the Universe, and back to the beginning of time.

Nasa now stands at the mercy of two powerful and opposing forces. One, the sheer momentum of a spectacularly successful 11-day rescue flight - a taste of the glory of past space missions. The other is the public embarrassment of a trawl through its darker corners by the agents of the FBI.

Those who hold Nasa's purse strings cannot ignore the growing impatience of taxpayers tired of wasteful government bodies. Endeavour's seven astronauts may have pacified sceptics for the time being, but the future of Nasa is by no means assured.

(Photograph omitted)