NEGLIGENCE at high levels of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration helped to send seven Challenger astronauts to their deaths in 1986.
Now it appears that the same kind of carelessness put the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope into orbit with a flawed mirror that prevents the instrument from focusing properly.
A NASA investigation blamed both the manufacturer of the mirror and NASA for the flaw that keeps the telescope from performing as expected. While it has sent back some useful data, it had been heralded by scientists as an eye into some of the secrets of the universe. The flaw can be corrected only through a new space shuttle mission, scheduled in 1993, at a cost of $50 million.
The investigators found the same laxity in management that contributed to the Challenger disaster. Hubble managers approved the quality-control program that allowed the mirror flaw to escape detection.
While the flaw was actually detected in tests, the quality-control inspectors lacked the expertise to understand the test results. As one of the investigators put it, "there were clues that didn't penetrate the higher levels of NASA."
These lapses are haunting reminders of the Challenger tragedy. Then, too, NASA had adequate warnings. The top engineers of Morton-Thiokol Inc., manufacturer of the rocket boosters for the Challenger, unanimously recommended that the launching be delayed. But company management, under pressure from NASA to meet launching deadlines, overruled the engineers.
A NASA official said that in both the Challenger and Hubble programs, engineers were discouraged from informing their superiors about potential problems.
In the case of Challenger, there were indications that some of those who told the truth about the disaster were punished for doing so. NASA needs an atmosphere in which "you don't shoot the messenger."
Only money and scientific embarrassment were at stake in the case of the Hubble fiasco, but the refurbished shuttle program involves human lives.
The Challenger disaster prompted a shake-up of management at NASA, but the new management failure in the Hubble program suggests that the shake-up was not thorough enough.