The pieces are coming together for NASA's next shuttle mission: the final service call on the Hubble Space Telescope.
This week, engineers at NASA centers in Florida and New Orleans hit major milestones in their preparations for the early October launch of the space shuttle Atlantis toward Hubble. NASA hopes to launch Atlantis on Oct. 5, three days earlier than planned, though a final decision will be made during an Aug. 14 meeting of shuttle mission managers.
On Sunday, shuttle workers attached twin solid rocket boosters to Atlantis's 15-story external tank inside the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Two days later, engineers at the spaceport also wrapped up flame trench repairs at Pad 39A, an Apollo-era launch site now used for shuttle missions that was damaged during the May 31 liftoff of the Discovery orbiter.
"Flame trench repairs are essentially complete," NASA spokesperson Candrea Thomas of KSC told SPACE.com. "Repairs went fairly smoothly."
The $2.7 million fix-it job also went swiftly, finishing well ahead of its initial deadline next week, Thomas said.
When Discovery lifted off, the shuttle's exhaust plume blasted some 3,500 heat-resistant from their moorings inside Pad 39A's flame trench, which guides exhaust away from the spacecraft. Work crews patched up the damaged areas with Fondue Fyre, a heat-resistant concrete that can be applied with a spray.
Meanwhile, the new instruments and equipment to fly to Hubble aboard Atlantis have been steadily arriving at KSC for weeks, and a second space shuttle fuel tank is en route to the spaceport from NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. That tank, which shipped out Wednesday by barge, is reserved for the shuttle Endeavour and its planned November mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
Engineers are also preparing Endeavour to serve as a rescue ship for Atlantis's seven Hubble servicing astronauts if their spacecraft suffers critical damage. Unlike recent shuttle missions, Atlantis's crew will not be able to take refuge aboard the ISS if their shuttle is damaged by launch or orbital debris because the station and Hubble are in different orbits.
Thomas said processing for both space shuttles is going smoothly and Atlantis may roll out of its hangar to meet its rocket boosters and fuel tank, then out to the launch pad, a few days early. The shuttle is due to leave its hangar on Aug. 22, then head to Pad 39A on Aug. 29, but those dates could change next week if NASA's earlier Oct. 5 launch target holds.
"There haven't been any major problems," Thomas said of spacecraft preparations.
Atlantis's STS-125 flight to the Hubble Space Telescope will mark the fifth and final servicing mission to the orbital observatory since its launch in April 1990. The mission will also be NASA's fourth of five planned shuttle flights for 2008 and the last not aimed at completing the construction of the International Space Station.