CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The second and last available computer needed to operate the shuttle Columbia's $150-million telescope payload shut down early today in a major crisis for the star-crossed astronomy mission.
Even before the computer failure, other technical glitches and ongoing trouble with a balky telescope pointing system had reduced by about half the number of targets the crew could study, although they were making good progress when the control computer shut down.
If the astronauts are unable to restart either computer--and officials were not optimistic--ground controllers would have to attempt to aim Columbia's four-telescope payload from the ground, using the shuttle crew to zero in on the targets using a joystick.
"We know that is going to be difficult, but we're going to give that a try," mission scientist Ted Gull said.
While the hard-luck mission would be able to continue in that fashion, the amount of astronomical data gathered by Columbia's four telescopes would be sharply reduced. Even if the plan works, science operations were not expected to begin again until Friday.
"We haven't really practiced at it very much," flight director Robert Castle said. "This is certainly a setback.