THIS WEEK, finally, the NASA/Goddard team operating the Hubble Space Telescope emerged from a rocky shakedown cruise with its first pictures of Out There -- a batch of blurry shots known to mission scientists as "first light." Amid the blur they already offered some good signs: a view of a double star, previously unseen, and a focus twice as sharp as scientists had hoped for at this stage. They needed the lift, for the Hubble has given everyone a much tougher time than the early, euphoric predictions suggested. It has jolted around, self-protectively shut down parts of its instrumentation and puzzled its NASA/Goddard handlers with a series of mishaps that they eventually traced to a single extra inch of protruding cable. Mission scientists point out that the parts of the craft designed to operate only in zero-gravity conditions could not be tested beforehand. It will be at least three or four months, they say, before the Hubble can "start science."
In the meantime, they face the difficulty of explaining the technical problems to the well-meaning crowds leaning over their shoulders. To the interesting challenge of translation that this poses, they have responded with a steady flow of often charming anthropomorphism: the telescope, they explain, went into so-called safe mode because it "didn't understand" or "didn't trust" the instructions coming from the computer; it "dithered" with its antenna while looking for the proper guide star; the scientists managed to "talk it into" a more relaxed mode, and so forth.
Then there are the heroic efforts to convey the scale of what is going on. The Hubble's aim needs to be held so steady that it could stand for 24 hours on the Washington Monument pointing a laser beam at a dime on the World Trade Center. The Hubble's internal mirror is polished so smooth that if its imperfections were six inches high, the imperfections in a never-worn pair of eyeglasses would rival the Himalayas.
These flights of poetry may not do much for the country's well-known innocence of matters mathematic and scientific, but they certainly advance the bonding process. Space scientists can usually count on this kind of cushion even when things go wrong, a huge advantage over most highly technical research, and though some tacticians have felt that unmanned missions would interest the public less than manned ones, the Hubble and Voyager outpourings make that argument fade.