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NASA Banking on Success of Telescope Repair Mission

By Mark A. Stein
Los Angeles Times

When NASA planned a space shuttle mission to fix the Hubble Space Telescope -- the orbiting observatory hobbled by a defective mirror -- the agency chose its most experienced astronauts, trained them exhaustively for 11 months and gave them 200 custom-made tools to do the job.

But once the six-man, one-woman crew begins its mission -- liftoff is scheduled for early Wednesday -- their most sophisticated piece of equipment will be something that was not dreamed up in a NASA research center, industry think tank or university laboratory.

It was conceived in the shower of a German hotel room. There, nearly three years ago, while preparing to ask a European Space Agency team if it had any idea how to fix the Hubble, NASA engineer James H. Crocker encountered a shower head that extended and adjusted to accommodate bathers of almost any height.

The invention it inspired -- specially ground mirrors on automated arms that reach into the space telescope's belly and flop into place like that adjustable shower head -- could do what once seemed impossible: install corrective optics to within a few millions of an inch inside an apparently inaccessible part of a satellite 300 miles above Earth.

So much for finding a solution. Now the contraption must be installed in the freezing void of space. Two teams of spacewalking astronauts will try to wrestle Crocker's phone booth-size optics package -- and another, equally bulky device -- into the 43-foot-long Hubble during the repair mission.

The 11-day flight -- which is scheduled to include five spacewalks, one more than has ever been attempted on any previous mission -- will be one of NASA's most ambitious adventures. It will also be one of its riskiest -- in terms of both the mission's success and NASA's status as a federal agency.

Although shuttle program managers downplay the need for an unalloyed success, congressional aides and other NASA watchers believe that the future of the space agency, and perhaps human space flight itself, may be at stake.

Success in repairing Hubble would help the National Aeronautics and Space Administration repolish its reputation, which has been tarnished by a string of high-profile failures, from the fatal Challenger disaster in 1986 to last summer's disappearance of Mars Observer to the building of the flawed Hubble telescope itself.

Failure to fix Hubble -- or, worse, to blind it by accident or by mistake -- could vaporize the space agency's credibility on Capitol Hill and almost certainly lead Congress to reassess NASA's ability to build the much-criticized Space Station.