"Rescue Mission in Space" is so understated in title and presentation that one might expect this "Nova" program on the 1993 repair of the Hubble Space Telescope to be as dull and routine as most space shuttle missions have become.
Not so. "Rescue"--perhaps because of its no-frills approach to this real-life drama--has more suspense than most made-for-TV space movies could ever hope for.
Start with the plot: A $1.5-billion bungled telescope--expected to provide views of the universe as never before glimpsed--circles 370 miles above Earth, effectively blind because its mirror was ground to the wrong prescription. As scientists struggle to figure out a way to fix it, an American engineer stumbles upon the solution while showering in a German hotel: A pivoting shower head inspires his design of corrective lenses for the Hubble.
An experienced hot-shot shuttle crew lugs up the contraption, along with a standard set of tools found in any garage. And then the fun begins.
Made-for-TV astronaut and Kojak clone Story Musgrave spearheads this 18,000 mile-an-hour optometry visit with flair. To see Musgrave and his space-walking colleagues perched precariously on a platform at the end of the 50-foot shuttle robot arm is spine-chilling on its own.
But it is the repair job itself that indeed lives up to its billing as "the most complicated and ambitious space walk since the moon landings." The primary goal is to slip the rectangular corrective lens package, called COSTAR, complete with its shower head pivoting mechanism, into the innards of the hobbled Hubble.
While this would be a snap in Musgrave's back yard on Earth, it seems nearly impossible in the zero gravity of space. Appropriately, the fate of the mission ultimately hangs on a loose screw--literally--that floats menacingly away from its home in the telescope's solar panel. For several exasperating minutes the screw is lost, threatening the mission and perhaps the shuttle itself if it were to lodge in the wrong spot.
Finally, relieved astronaut Jeffrey A. Hoffman grabs the little sucker, and the rest is history. COSTAR works spectacularly and the Hubble is rescued from a fate as the latest boondoggle on NASA's spiraling resume to the agency's gaudiest success story in years.
Writer-producer Lauren S. Aguirre wisely lets this story tell itself without overbearing music and with restrained narration by Stacy Keach.
* "Rescue Mission in Space" airs at 8 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.