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Hubble: Like a Shot in the Dark : Troubled Space Agency Sends Up an Untested Telescope, Loses Big

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration obviously has serious internal management problems. There was nothing wrong with the Hubble Space Telescope project that a measure of properly organized pre-launch testing couldn’t have caught and fixed.

But because basic testing of the orbiting telescope’s two mirrors was not done, the world now sees the inglorious result of NASA’s laxity and ineptitude: A $1.5-billion piece of equipment that, until a defect with one of its mirrors is fixed, is not much more than a hunk of orbiting junk. How was this fiasco allowed to happen?

Lew Allen, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, has been asked fo find out. And Congress, with a hearing already started, will want to find out for itself. Inevitably the manufacturer--Hughes Danbury Optical Systems, Inc.--will be questioned about producing a couple of multimillion-dollar mirrors that did not work.

Congress would be wrong to spare the rod on the manufacturer, if the facts uncover a design flaw or manufacturer’s blunder. But in truth the job of the space agency is to monitor such work and prevent fiascoes.

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This one is a real beaut. NASA’s huge budget ($10.9 billion in 1989) now needs to be reviewed; its penchant for selling Congress and the American people on unbelievably expensive projects called to account. Over the next 25 years NASA would like to operate six huge earth-observation satellites. That ambition now needs to be examined by Congress with a skeptical eye. Just Thursday the shuttle fleet was grounded, once again, after NASA detected mysterious fuel leaks on two of the three crafts.

Many warned that the 1986 Challenger disaster, caused by a fuel leak that claimed the lives of six astronauts, showed a fundamental defect in the management structure and competence of the space agency. Four years later there is reason to ask if that warning was understated.


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