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WOULD YOU BUY A USED SHUTTLE FROM NASA?

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"The top line, please."

"B.""Again, please?"

"P?"

"One more time."

"F?"

"Close enough."

Welcome to NASA Opticians, The Gang That Couldn't See Straight.

What's the big deal here? Haven't you ever gone on vacation and taken the wrong lens along for your camera? Or worse yet, forgotten to take the camera altogether? By the time you realize your mistake, you're too far down the road to turn back; those pictures of Aunt Minnie teetering over the Grand Canyon will just have to wait.

Well, that's kind of what happened to the fun-loving guys and gals down at NASA, only the name of their camera is the Hubble space telescope, and their little trip is costing them (which is to say, us) a cool $2.8 billion or so. So far.

Seems one of Hubble's big light-gathering mirrors was oh-so-lovingly, oh-so-smoothly ground to the wrong prescription. This is not a good thing when you're supposed to be peering into deepest space; Hubble can't quite focus on what it's doing.

Big Bang? More like Big Bust. But hey, what do you expect for a couple of billion bucks - perfection?

"It's a punch in the stomach," says one of the scientists who was heavily involved in planning the project. It's no trip to the moon on gossamer wings, that's for sure.

Other folks are putting up a braver front. "We are deferring some of the science," says another official. "We are not losing science." Of course not. You remember that old TV show, "Deferred in Space," don't you? Never missed an episode, right?

Anyway, NASA's damage-control experts plan to press ahead with whatever observations they can still manage with whatever equipment they've got up there that isn't too dependent on blurry Hubble. After that, they intend to send a space-shuttle crew skyward to fit the bum mirror with corrective lenses - the astronomical equivalent of eyeglasses. NASA insists it's perfectly effective, and the very same thing you or I would do if we had lousy vision.

Assuming, of course, you or I were willing to wait until 1993 for an appointment. That's when the shuttle is scheduled to make its first Hubbleland service call. And that assumes, of course, that the shuttle is up and running itself. Which it isn't at the moment, of course, not nearly - or do you think that the shuttle fleet is supposed to leak highly explosive hydrogen fuel for no reason at all?

No, thank you, and NASA doesn't think so either, apparently, which is why the entire fleet has just been grounded until further notice. Oops.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it? So you're probably wondering: "Would I buy a used spaceship from NASA?"

And the second thing you're probably wondering - even if they finally do get Hubble's mirror problem figured out and the "eyeglasses" designed, and even if they do get the shuttle back on its pad to shoot them up there - is: "Do they really think that Hubble has ears?"