'We Slam-Dunked It'

GRUNTING AND PUSHING A refrigerator-size crate, the astronauts looked more like lumbering furniture movers than the deft orbital ophthalmologists they were trained to be. Kathryn Thornton, tethered to the space shuttle Endeavor, had eased herself out of the shuttle's air lock and floated into its cargo bay. The four-story Hubble Space Telescope loomed above her. She clambered onto Endeavor's mechanical arm and grabbed the handholds on the 640-pound box called COSTAR, which is designed to compensate for the telescope's flawed mirror. Engineers at mission control held their breath. Her view of the telescope blocked by COSTAR, Thornton listened as fellow spacewalker Tom Akers, strapped onto one of Hubble's footholds, called out directions like a diligent parking-lot attendant: "You've got to move about three inches," he said. "Keep coming, coming...It's sliding in easy...Looking good...sliding on in..." "It's in!" Thornton exulted when she felt COSTAR click into place.

Inserting COSTAR was the make-or-break task of last week's $629 million mission to repair the myopic space telescope (NEWSWEEK, Dec. 6). But the four astronauts making a record five spacewalks did more than deliver a high-tech contact lens. On this most complicated shuttle mission ever, they also completed every one of the scheduled repairs (diagram), an awesome sweep that promised to do more for NASA's tattered image than anything since the glory days of Apollo. "We slam-dunked this damn thing, lead flight director Milt Heflin told NEWSWEEK.

The triumphs were tarnished, however, by continuing revelations of an FBI investigation of Johnson Space Center (page 102), news of which leaked just before the Endeavor blasted off. That timing infuriated NASA officials. "From [administrator Daniel] Goldin on down, they all feel it's part of a plot to smear NASA," says a veteran space watcher. "People are very suspicious of the timing: whoever leaked it obviously did it to get the maximum amount of attention." The astronauts learned of the scandal through a news packet that mission control radios up regularly.

The news didn't seem to rock their concentration, though. Story Musgrave and Jeffrey Hoffman, for instance, managed to pull off the orbital equivalent of changing a flat tire on a dark highway: replacing the obsolete Wide Field/Planetary Camera (WF/PC) in inky blackness, their only illumination came from lamps on their helmets and a flashlight inside the Endeavor's cockpit. (Sunlight would damage the camera, so it had to stay in the Endeavor's shadow.) Still, Hoffman wielded the battery-powered ratchet wrench like a veteran mechanic. "Five turns to the hard stop," he counted aloud. "OK, I can feel we're engaged." Hoffman slid out the old WF/PC, stowed it in the cargo bay and slipped in the new camera.

Mission control credited the astronauts' perfect 10s to their grueling training, but some of the success came from quick improvising. On the first spacewalk, Hoffman discovered that the silvery doors through which he had just slid four new gyroscopes refused to latch: sunlight had warmed one door, making it expand in a way that kept its bolt from mating with the other door. "The power tool is really struggling," Hoffman radioed to mission control as the bolt refused to slide in. "The power tool has given up." Silence. "Uh-oh. We're in trouble." A support screw had slipped out of the bolt. Mission control was ready to give up--keeping the door slightly ajar would not have endangered Hubble--when Musgrave insisted on slapping together a brace from which the astronauts could slam the doors shut. Like a swift kick to the TV that works when everything else fails, the brute force did the trick.

The next day it was Thornton and Akers's turn to throw out the playbook. Mission control had already radioed up signals intended to roll up the old, wobbly solar panels. But a metal frame on one of the panels was bent. The panel had stuck. So Thornton cobbled together a handle and, from her perch on the mechanical arm, attached it to the recalcitrant panel. As the arm lifted her toward the sunrise, she hoisted the 8-foot-by-40-foot array above her head like Brunnhilde raising her arms to the dawn. Then she released the panel (it will fall to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere in a year or so). Said project scientist David Leckrone, "The mythical Wagnerian image of Kathryn Thornton holding that solar array up toward the rising sun is one of...[those] images that are burned into your brain for life."

It will take two months before astronomers know whether the new optics in COSTAR and the wide-field camera have cleared Hubble's vision. But old NASA hands don't much care whether a bunch of academic astronomers get to peer at the edge of time. To them, last week's was a proof-of-concept flight. The concept? That a spacewalk-friendly craft can be serviced in orbit. The craft? The space station. President Reagan started it, President Clinton demanded it be rethought and slimmed down, Congress keeps threatening to kill it. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that funds NASA, told The Houston Post that the success of the repair mission "will go a long way toward restoring congressional confidence in NASNs ability to carry out its complex duties." That air kiss is not as good as a generous appropriations bill for the space station, but for the beleaguered space agency it's one small step back into the good graces of Washington, one large step toward regaining the right stuff.