A long-awaited mission to repair and upgrade the venerable Hubble Space Telescope will get serious next week when the space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to roll out to Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The high-profile and risky mission will overhaul the telescope for the fifth and final time.
The rollout is slated to start Tuesday when the shuttle begins a 3.4-mile journey to the launch pad aboard a crawler moving at less than 1 mph.
The fully assembled space shuttle, consisting of the orbiter, external fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters, was mounted on a mobile launcher platform and will be delivered to the pad atop a crawler-transporter. The process is expected to take approximately six hours.
During Atlantis' 11-day mission, the crew of seven astronauts will make the final shuttle flight to Hubble, considered by many to be the greatest telescope ever. During five spacewalks, they will install two new instruments, repair two inactive ones and replace components. The result will be six working, complementary science instruments with capabilities beyond what is now available, and an extended operational lifespan for the telescope through at least 2014.
Scott Altman will be the commander of Atlantis. Gregory C. Johnson will be the pilot. Mission specialists will be John Grunsfeld, Mike Massimino, Megan McArthur, Andrew Feustel and Michael Good.
The mission is riskier than most because the astronauts will not have the safe haven of the international space station (which STS-119 crew members undocked from today) to turn to if their shuttle heat shield is damaged beyond repair as current missions to the station do. NASA will have a second shuttle ready to launch as a rescue ship instead.
The Hubble repair mission also has an added risk because of the Feb. 10 collision between a U.S. Iridium 33 communications satellite and the defunct Russian military communications satellite Cosmos 2251. The mission was at a higher space debris risk to begin with.