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News Briefs II

Hubble Repair Major Challenge For Shuttle Astronauts

Los Angeles Times

As sleepless astronomers held their breath, two astronauts prepared late Thursday to start an exacting orbital house call on the $2 billion Hubble Space Telescope, culminating two years of painstaking rehearsals for one of the most demanding tasks in NASA's manned space program.

In a six-hour spacewalk scheduled to end early Friday, the astronauts planned to replace two out-dated instruments in the bus-sized orbital telescope with more sophisticated sensors designed to dramatically improve its color vision and expand its ability to perceive infra-red light.

The new equipment will allow astronomers to stare with clearer, more discerning eyes at a universe of wonders, from the dense dust clouds in which stars and planets are born, to the voracious black holes devouring the hearts of many galaxies. "We're salivating," said one University of Michigan stargazer.

Later Friday, astronauts again will don their bulky white spacesuits, start deep-breathing their special oxygen mix and squeeze through Discovery's airlock into the cargo bay for another six-hour, slow-motion ballet with the towering, 43-foot-high telescope, as the Earth speeds by below at 17,500 miles per hour.

Astronauts Gregory J. Harbaugh and Joseph R. Tanner plan to replace a failing guidance sensor with an $8 million device designed to ensure the telescope can stay aimed properly.

Letter Released Reportedly Written By North Korean Defector

Los Angeles Times

The note, purportedly written by the highest-ranking official ever to defect from North Korea, said: "Starting with my family, people will judge that I am mad. But the question is: Am I the only mad person?"

This message, South Korean officials said Thursday, was written by Hwang Jang Yop, 72, the North Korean Communist Party elder whom they claim to be protecting inside the heavily guarded South Korean consulate here. They also asserted that North Korean agents tried to break into the consulate building late Wednesday night but were repulsed by Chinese security police.

China on Thursday appealed for calm, as officials wrestled with the question of what to do about Hwang, a secretary of the ruling Worker's Party of Korea and the architect of its fanatically nationalist "juche" philosophy of "self-reliance." He reportedly walked into the South Korea consulate on Wednesday, demanding political asylum.

In a brief statement, Foreign Ministry spokesman Tang Guoqiang gingerly avoided taking sides. "We had not been informed in advance of Hwang Jang Yob's transit through Beijing," Tang said, refusing to answer additional questions from reporters. "What has been reported is still being subjected to investigation and verification."

The incident put Beijing in the awkward position of having to choose between its longtime Communist ally in North Korea, were peasants are reported near starvation, and South Korea, which in 1996 recorded $20 billion in bilateral trade with China.

CBO Director Counters President On Surplus in 2002

The Washington Post

Congressional Budget Office Director June E. O'Neill testified Thursday that President Clinton's budget plan is out of balance and would produce a deficit of at least $50 billion by 2002 - the same year the president has projected a $17 billion surplus.

O'Neill, appearing before the House Budget Committee, also said she was skeptical about a proposed "trigger" mechanism in Clinton's budget that would cancel tax cuts and impose across-the-board spending cuts in the event the deficit reduction plan falls short.

O'Neill's testimony confirmed what has been clear for weeks - that a big gap exists between White House and Republican estimates of the spending cuts that are needed to balance the budget by the target year, 2002. Republicans contend Congress will need nearly twice as much in savings as the president has recommended to balance the budget and provide a tax cut.

Using the more conservative CBO forecasts, House and Senate GOP budget leaders have pegged those savings at nearly $500 billion between 1997 and 2002. The White House contends that $252 billion of net savings will be needed.

"This is not like some Republican saying, Look, the Democrats are wrong,' " House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, said of the report by the nonpartisan CBO.

Slaying of Soldier in N. Ireland Revives Fears of Flare-Up

Los Angeles Times

Firing a high-powered rifle from ambush through a night scope, the terrorist sniper killed British infantryman Stephen Restorick, with a single shot to the back that pierced his flak jacket as he manned a checkpoint in Bessbrook, about 30 miles southwest of Belfast.

By Thursday, an embittered and outraged Northern Ireland seemed headed again toward sectarian combat.

Bessbrook, a mostly Protestant village in the strongly pro-Republican south, is British army headquarters in the most contentious rural part of Northern Ireland. It is home to the busiest helicopter landing port in Europe because snipers and land mines make it too dangerous to resupply police and military outposts by road.

The Irish Republican Army did not immediately claim responsibility for the killing, but the attack in an area of south Armagh where the IRA once put up a sign saying "Caution, Sniper at Work," bore the extremists' trademark.

With tensions high Thursday, police defused a homemade anti-personnel bomb left in a public housing project in the region where the soldier was shot.