Image: shuttle launch
A camera mounted on the shuttle Atlantis' external fuel tank shows the orbiter's underbelly with a curving Earth in the background on Monday. staff and news service reports
updated 5/12/2009 9:54:16 AM ET 2009-05-12T13:54:16

Shuttle Atlantis is racing after the Hubble Space Telescope a day after taking off on a daring repair mission.

Today, the seven astronauts will spend the entire day inspecting virtually every inch of the shuttle for any launch damage. They surveyed the thermal shielding on their crew cabin Monday evening.

This final trip to Hubble is especially dangerous because of all the space junk in the telescope's 350-mile-high orbit. Atlantis seems to have come through its launch fairly well, at least. But the analysis is continuing.

Another shuttle, Endeavour, is at the launch pad and could take off in three to six days if the astronauts had to be rescued.

Atlantis will catch up to Hubble on Wednesday.

The space shuttle Atlantis thundered away Monday on one last flight to the Hubble Space Telescope, setting off on an extraordinarily ambitious repair mission that NASA hopes will lift the celebrated observatory to new scientific heights.

Atlantis rose from its seaside pad just after 2 p.m. ET and arced out over the Atlantic, ducking through clouds. Hubble was directly overhead, 350 miles up (560 kilometers up).

For the first time ever, another shuttle was on a nearby launch pad, primed for a rescue mission if one is needed because of a debris strike.

After seven months of delay, the astronauts were anxious to get started on the complicated, riskier-than-usual job at Hubble. They were two weeks away from launching last fall when a critical data-processing device on the telescope failed and picture-taking ceased. NASA decided it wanted to take up a spare to replace the broken unit, and it took months to get it ready.

"At last our launch has come along," commander Scott Altman told mission controllers just minutes before blastoff. "It's been a long time coming. ... At this point, all I've got left to say is, 'Let's launch Atlantis.'"

“Enjoy the ride, pal,” launch director Mike Leinbach replied.

Minor nuisances cropped up during the final countdown and the ascent: The launch pad team had to take a close look at ice buildup on one of Atlantis' fuel lines, and for a time, forecasters worried about weather at one of the shuttle's emergency landing sites in Spain. But those concerns didn't hold up the launch.

As Atlantis headed for orbit, one of its flight control feedback systems suffered a power failure, and one of its engine indicators experienced a glitch, NASA managers said. But they said those problems were nothing serious. They said a few pieces of debris came off the external fuel tank during the first few minutes of flight, but nothing appeared to hit Atlantis.

Over the next day or so, engineers on the ground will review imagery captured during the ascent, and Atlantis' crew will give the shuttle's protective skin a thorough inspection — just to make sure that no significant damage was done.

Slideshow: The Hubble Story Atlantis should reach the orbiting telescope Wednesday.

This is NASA’s fifth and final trip to Hubble, launched 19 years ago. The stakes, as well as the dangers, are higher since astronauts last visited in 2002. Space has become more littered with junk at Hubble’s altitude because of satellite collisions and breakups, and NASA now knows all too well how much damage can be done at liftoff by a piece of fuel-tank foam. Columbia was brought down by such a blow in 2003.

About 30,000 people jammed Kennedy Space Center for the launch, and hundreds of thousands more watched live video on TV and over the Internet.

Scientists hugged each other and posed for pictures. "We have 60 years of Hubble between us," Ed Weiler, NASA's science mission chief, said as he threw an arm around senior project scientist David Leckrone. "It's bittersweet. ... I know this one is the last one. On the other hand, I know that Hubble is going to be better than ever once the astronauts do their thing."

Leckrone was also wistful: “It’s the end of the era of Hubble servicing.”

The final tuneup
Hubble is way overdue for a tuneup.

Two spacewalking teams will replace the 19-year-old Hubble’s batteries and gyroscopes, install two new cameras and take a crack at fixing two broken science instruments, something never before attempted. Those instruments, loaded with bolts and fasteners, were not designed to be tinkered with in space. Special tools were developed to make the repairs as easy as possible.

The astronauts also will remove the science data-handling unit that failed in September and had to be revived, and put in an old spare that was hustled into operation. Fresh insulating covers will be added to the outside of the telescope, and a new fine guidance sensor for pointing will be hooked up.

Five spacewalks will be needed to accomplish everything. The work is so tricky and intricate that two of the repairmen are Hubble veterans, John Grunsfeld and Michael Massimino. Grunsfeld, the chief repairman, is making an unprecedented third trip to the telescope. Altman, the commander, also has previously flown to Hubble.

“We’ll give it our best,” Altman said at liftoff.

$10 billion investment
All told, it’s a $1 billion mission. The space telescope, over the decades, represents a $10 billion investment. It was launched amid considerable hoopla in 1990, but was quickly found to be nearsighted, producing blurred images, because of a flawed mirror.

Slideshow: Month in Space Corrective lenses were installed in 1993 during what Weiler has called "the 'miracle in space' mission." The results were stunning and included the acclaimed "Pillars of Creation" image of Eagle Nebula, a star-forming region 6,500 light-years away.

With all the newest pieces, NASA hopes to keep Hubble churning out breathtaking views of the universe for another five to 10 years. The new cameras should enable the observatory to peer deeper into the cosmos and collect an unprecedented amount of data.

"I have full confidence that they'll pull off a success and if they do, we'll have a Hubble for at least five, six, eight years more," said Weiler.

Riskier than usual
The 11-day mission, led by Altman, a former Navy fighter pilot, comes with a higher risk than usual because of Hubble's relatively high orbit and the heightened space junk problem. The international space station, which is traveling in a radically different orbit, will not be available as a refuge in case anything goes wrong. Atlantis' crew would have to be rescued before the air gave out, within about 25 days.

In 2004, after the Columbia tragedy, NASA canceled this last Hubble servicing mission, saying it was too dangerous. The mission was reinstated two years later by the space agency’s new boss, but only after shuttle flights had resumed and repair techniques had been developed.

As an added precaution, another shuttle was ordered to be on standby in case Atlantis suffered irreparable damage. Endeavour, the rescue ship, is ready to lift off within a week to save the six men and one woman aboard Atlantis. It will stay on standby, as little as three days from launching, until Atlantis heads back home on May 22.

This is the last time a shuttle is scheduled to fly somewhere other than the space station, and NASA doesn’t expect to have shuttles on both pads ever again. The shuttle fleet is due for retirement around the end of the year 2010.

NASA's next great space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, is due for launch in the 2013-2014 time frame. Its science operations, focusing on infrared wavelengths, are expected to overlap Hubble's last years of life.

One of the tasks facing Atlantis' crew during this mission is to install a docking adapter that could be used by a robotic craft to guide Hubble down to its doom after its retirement sometime in the next decade. That same adapter could conceivably be used by a future spacecraft — perhaps the Orion spaceship, currently being developed by NASA — for yet another visit to the grand old space telescope.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and

© 2013

Video: Follow the mission


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