After months of delay, NASA's space shuttle Atlantis is just one week away from launching seven eager astronauts to give the iconic Hubble Space Telescope one last makeover.
Atlantis is poised to rocket toward Hubble at 2:01 p.m. ET on May 11 with a mix of veteran Hubble mechanics and first-time spacefliers on board. The mission, NASA's final repair flight to Hubble, has been delayed since October, when a critical component on the space telescope failed.
"We used our time wisely with the slip to try and take ourselves up to another level," said Atlantis skipper Scott Altman, who is leading the six-man, one-woman team to the Hubble observatory. "Now, we're really looking forward to putting all that practice into work."
Altman and his crew plan to perform five back-to-back spacewalks during their 11-day mission to add new instruments, replace old batteries and gyroscopes and make vital repairs, including some to equipment that was never designed to be fixed in space. If all goes well, the work should extend the already 19-year-old Hubble telescope's lifetime through at least 2014.
To be safe, NASA has primed a second space shuttle — the Endeavour orbiter — to serve as a rescue ship during the upcoming mission, because Atlantis would be unable to reach the safe haven of the international space station from Hubble if it suffers critical damage.
"That's one of the things I haven't been worried too much about," Altman said, adding that he considers the rescue mission as "extremely unlikely."
Here's a look at NASA's last Hubble repair crew:
Scott Altman: Back to Hubble
Leading Atlantis' charge to Hubble is Altman, a retired U.S. Navy captain making his fourth spaceflight and second consecutive trip to the orbital space telescope. His last flight, STS-109 in 2002 aboard Columbia, was NASA's most recent Hubble servicing mission until now.
Keeping his crew fresh, especially in the face of months of delay after years of training for a mission that NASA had initially cancelled because of the risk, has been a great challenge, Altman said.
"It has been a struggle," Altman, 50, said during a recent briefing. "It's made us, I think, appreciate this mission and the telescope even more."
Altman hails from the town of Pekin, Ill., and joined NASA's astronaut corps in 1995. He is an experienced test pilot who flies under the call sign "Scooter." Altman is married to wife Jill and has three sons.
Gregory Johnson: Navy flier
Atlantis pilot Gregory C. Johnson is actually one of two Greg Johnsons in NASA's astronaut corps, but he goes by the call sign Ray Jay and moonlights as the Hubble servicing crew's social organizer.
"I guess I'm the social coordinator for the crew," said Johnson, 55, who is making his first spaceflight. "We've had a lot of good parties at my house, each one better than the other. ... We've had a really good time."
Like Altman, Johnson is a retired U.S. Navy captain and test pilot with a passion for flying that led him to join NASA's aircraft division in 1990 and later shift to the astronaut corps in 1998. He has flown high-performance aircraft off Navy carriers and icy glaciers, but considers his trek into space as the pinnacle.
"I tell people it's the greatest flying job in the universe. It's going to be great," Johnson, a Seattle native, told Space.com.
Johnson is married to wife Nanette and has five children, including two grown sons.
Michael Good: ‘Best job of my life’
U.S. Air Force colonel Michael "Bueno" Good will make his spacewalking debut during the challenging Hubble overhaul ahead after a nine-year wait to reach space.
"I'm ready, I'm really ready to go," Good told Space.com. "It's been the best job of my life training to fly in space and we still have the whole flight ahead of us."
Good, 47, is from Broadview Heights, Ohio and joined NASA's spaceflying ranks in 2000. An aerospace engineer and veteran test pilot, he will serve as Mission Specialist 1 and participate in two of the five spacewalks to upgrade Hubble. He's already been watching Hubble fly overhead from the driveway of his Houston home.
"I watch it go over and think about how cool that is," Good said. "And then I imagine myself up there hanging on to the handrails of the Hubble Space Telescope as it's screaming across the sky and it really gets me excited."
Good is married to wife Joan and has two sons, ages 23 and 19, and an 11-year-old daughter.
Megan McArthur: Catching Hubble
Without the deft hand of astronaut Megan McArthur there could be no mission to Hubble. She's in charge of catching Hubble with Atlantis' robotic arm so the telescope can be hauled into the shuttle cargo bay for repairs.
"It should be a simple operation and reaching out and grabbing the telescope," said McArthur, 38, adding that it should be an exciting event. "It will be my first, and probably only, time doing a free-flying grapple."
McArthur holds a doctorate in oceanography and joined NASA's astronaut corps in 2000. For the Hubble mission she serves as Mission Specialist 2 and flight engineer during launch and landing, as well as the lead robotic arm operator. McArthur will make her first spaceflight on the mission.
"It'll be thrilling for me to see the planet from space...the vastness of the ocean," said McArthur, who was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and grew up in California. "I'm just excited to take it all in, let it soak in, the beauty of our planet."
McArthur is married to fellow NASA astronaut Robert Behnken.
John Grunsfeld: The original Hubble hugger
Astronaut John Grunsfeld, 51, is no stranger to the Hubble Space Telescope. The astronomer-turned-astronaut is making his fifth career spaceflight aboard Atlantis on a mission that marks his third visit to Hubble. He serves as Mission Specialist 3 and the flight's lead spacewalker, with three excursions on tap.
"The Hubble Space Telescope is more than remarkable," Grunsfeld, a self-labeled "Hubble hugger," said during a NASA interview. "It has answered just so many of those fundamental questions that people have been asking about the cosmos since people were able to ask questions."
Grunsfeld has aimed for space since his childhood, when he built his own ad hoc spacesuit out of a vacuum cleaner and ice cream tins. He was born in Chicago and obtained a doctorate in physics before realizing his astronaut dream in 1992.
"I think that space exploration as a broad activity is the most important things that humans can do," Grunsfeld said in an interview. "I've always found it fascinating, interesting, compelling and I have a drive to go out into space."
Grunsfeld is married to wife Carol and has two young children, a son and a daughter.
Michael Massimino: Twittering spacewalker
Of all the astronauts bound for Hubble, veteran spaceflyer Michael "Mas" Massimino is the only one broadcasting his mission training to the world under the moniker @Astro_Mike on the microblogging Web site Twitter.
"The whole Twitter experience has been great fun," Massimino, 47, told reporters last month. "I think as astronauts we look for ways to be able to share what we do because it's a pretty cool job."
As of Monday he was: "Enjoying my weekend, last one before entering quarantine, 8 days to launch."
Like Grunsfeld, Massimino is a veteran spacewalker and Hubble handyman. He, Grunsfeld and Altman all flew together on the STS-109 mission. Massimino holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering and joined NASA's spaceflying ranks in 1996. He is making his second spaceflight on Atlantis, where he serves as Mission Specialist 4 and will perform two spacewalks.
Massimino grew up in Franklin Square, N.Y., and is married to wife Carole. They have a teenage daughter and son.
Andrew Feustel: Spacewalker's debut
Rounding out Atlantis' Hubble servicing crew is first-time flier Andrew Feustel, who will perform three spacewalks during the mission as Mission Specialist 5.
"It is action-packed," Feustel, 44, told Space.com. "It's going to be busy, there's no question."
Feustel grew up in Lake Orion, Mich., and is married to wife Indira and has two sons, ages 13 and 15. He is a trained geophysicist with a doctorate in geological sciences and a specialization in seismology. But while he does hope to spot the signals of Earth's plate tectonics from space, his heart is set on walking and working in weightlessness.
"Doing a spacewalk is something I've always wanted to do, so I'm really excited about it," Feustel said. "I want to have a good time and enjoy it while I'm up there."