Messing With Success

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.: The Hubble Space Telescope is about to get an upgrade. Space shuttle Discovery and a crew of seven blasted into orbit at 3:55 a.m. Tuesday on a mission to modernize what has already been one of the projects of which NASA is most proud. "With a little luck and a couple weeks, the best telescope in the universe will be even better than it is now," commander Kenneth Bowersox said just before liftoff. Since its 1993 repair, the Hubble Space Telescope has consistently delivered breathtaking views of the universe as it existed almost at the beginning of time, along with snapshots of billowing clouds of hydrogen gas and dust, 1 million-mph galaxy collisions, and stunning red and blue close-ups of Mars and Neptune. It has also provided valuable evidence for the ongoing debate on the precise age of our universe. Now, with a new near-infrared camera and two-dimensional spectrograph, said NASA's chief Hubble scientist, Ed Weiler, improved picture-taking "is going to get us further back and closer to that answer." Yet it still fell to the scientists, as has become common at NASA, to justify the Hubble's cost. After some quick figuring, Weiler put the annual cost per American at less than one dollar. In total, he said, NASA has spent $3.8 billion on the program, including the cost of this shuttle mission, since the late 1970s. "That's one aircraft carrier or two B-2 bombers," Weiler said. "And they're not working every day -- unless we attack Canada."