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NASA Space Science

Why Hubble Broke and How It Was Fixed 73

angry tapir writes "I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Charles (Charlie) Pellerin, who was NASA's director of astrophysics when the Hubble Space Telescope launched with its seemingly fatally flawed optical system. Pellerin went on to head up the servicing mission that finally fixed the telescope and for that was awarded NASA's highest honor, a Distinguished Service Medal. Since Hubble he has done a lot of thinking about the problems that led up to the error and how organizations can best avoid making similar mistakes."
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Why Hubble Broke and How It Was Fixed

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  • The real hero (Score:4, Informative)

    by vonshavingcream ( 2291296 ) on Friday March 30, 2012 @08:31AM (#39521271)
    The real hero of that project was a man called Story Musgrave. [] There was a lot of planning put into fixing it, but without him actually up there in space improvising when stuff went south, the Hubble would be useless today.
  • The real story... (Score:5, Informative)

    by jbrandv ( 96371 ) on Friday March 30, 2012 @08:41AM (#39521357)

    I worked at Ball Aerospace years ago and found out the real story. NASA cut the budget for Hubble so that a final optical train alignment task was never done. The engineers had designed a laser test to check the optical path but NASA wanted to save the $50000 the test would take. So until it was turned on, in space, they had no clue how bad it was. Working with NASA was tough mostly due to their arrogance.

  • Re:Interesting read (Score:5, Informative)

    by buchner.johannes ( 1139593 ) on Friday March 30, 2012 @09:20AM (#39521733) Homepage Journal

    I wanted to joke about the PhDs getting drunk at their desks, but there are a couple of gems in the text:

    "I saw this guy, Richard Feynman, who was a review board member, take a piece of rubber O-ring and put it in his icy water on television, and showed that it stiffened up. So immediately I said, 'Oh, that's the technical problem, they didn't do the O-ring well.'"

    "That was nuts," Pellerin says. "These guys understood the O-ring, but I put that story in my head because technical people look for technical answers. I never read the conclusion of [the review board] report that said it was a social shortfall."

    We see this very clearly when discussing evoting.

    Then towards the end there is an interesting analogy of the Shuttle accidents with a Korean airline company having an extreme crash rate, referring to people put under too much pressure, and irrational .

    "There's a bunch of research I've come across in this work, where people say that the social context is a 78-80 per cent determinant of performance; individual abilities are 10 per cent. So why do we make this mistake? Because we spend all of these years in higher education being trained that it's about individual abilities."

    It's actually a good read for people interested in managing.

  • Re:Interesting read (Score:5, Informative)

    by jo_ham ( 604554 ) <joham999@gmai[ ]om ['l.c' in gap]> on Friday March 30, 2012 @11:22AM (#39523127)

    NASA specified SI.

    Supplier did not supply SI, since it bases its measurements on US system.


    Yes, it was a communication and management error, but not entirely. It has been standard in scientific settings to use SI units for years and years. Failure to use them *especially when specifically outlined by the design brief* is not just a "communications problem" - it's a fundamental error in the product that was delivered unfit for purpose.

No amount of genius can overcome a preoccupation with detail.