KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. -- After a flawless pre-dawn launch that rumbled like thunderous timpani, the Shuttle Endeavour hurtled early today toward its much anticipated rendezvous with the Hubble Space Telescope and the start of an arduous and complex repair mission.
The seven-member crew spent much of yesterday firing up Endeavour's engines to reach the 48-foot-long observatory at the appointed hour and orbit. The shuttle is expected to intercept Hubble tomorrow morning when it is more than 360 miles above the earth.
The 11-day mission to service NASA's $1.6 billion telescope and to repair its flawed vision began at 4:27 a.m. with "absolutely a picture-perfect launch," as shuttle technical adviser Loren Shriver put it.
For several scientists who have spent the bulk of their careers on the Hubble project, yesterday's launch was a moment filled with trepidation and promise.
Edward J. Weiler, the Hubble program scientist at NASA headquarters, was the official who told the world three years ago of the flaw in the telescope's main mirror.
"At the first launch we were up on Mount Everest," Dr. Weiler said, recalling the exhilaration when Hubble entered space but before the flaw was discovered. "Then we were in Death Valley. We've been crawling out of there ever since. I'd say we're at sea level now."
For the past three years, NASA officials, astronomers, scientists and the aerospace community have worked feverishly in pursuit of the Big Fix -- the agency's $629 million solution to correct a flaw in the telescope's primary mirror and to make other repairs.
Nature -- in the guise of stiff crosswinds -- scuttled Endeavour's first attempt at flight Wednesday. But yesterday's launch went off without a hitch.
A nearly full moon graced a cloudless sky as the shuttle arced into the air, trailing a brilliant, white fiery plume. It veered over the Atlantic Ocean, climbing 1,007 miles an hour in its first minute and a half of flight.
Then, almost as suddenly, it soared beyond the earth's atmosphere, leaving behind a dragon-shaped plume of smoke. ". . It's a beautiful sunrise," crowed mission commander Dick Covey from his perch in Endeavour.
The repair operation is the most ambitious and complex manned NASA project since the Apollo moon landings.
The scientific capabilities of the space observatory -- as well as the space agency's reputation -- are riding on the success of the Endeavour crew as it attempts an unprecedented five space walks to try to fix Hubble.
Hubble was designed to enable astronomers to search for planets orbiting other stars, to verify the existence of black holes, to study the evolution of galaxies and to measure the age of the universe.
But the telescope's flawed mirror has limited its ability to see faint objects and to study phenomena in crowded parts of the sky.
If the mission is successful, NASA hopes to extend Hubble's vision to the farthest reaches of the universe.
According to Dr. Weiler, the next mission milestone is the shuttle's pre-dawn rendezvous with Hubble tomorrow.
The size of a city bus, the 25,000-pound Hubble must be handled gingerly to avoid damaging its sensitive scientific instruments.
Endeavour must also grasp the telescope on the first try, since a second attempt would use a significant amount of fuel and limit what else it can do.
Once the shuttle gets a hold of Hubble, the crew will use Endeavour's mechanical arm to pull the telescope into the shuttle's cargo bay.
For Hubble project scientist David Leckrone, the rendezvous can't come soon enough.
"I will feel much better when Hubble is safely latched into the payload bay . . . because then we are fully in control," said Dr. Leckrone, 51, the project scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, which controls the telescope's operations and relays its observations to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
On the first space walk, astronauts F. Story Musgrave and Jeff Hoffman will try to replace a pair of the telescope's failing gyroscopes, the instruments that point the telescope.
The Hubble Space Telescope repair mission is carried live 24 hours a day on the NASA-Select TV channel, available to cable TV systems and satellite dish owners on Satcom F-2R, Transponder 13.
Actual repairs will occur during spacewalks scheduled during early morning hours on five consecutive days, beginning Sunday. During sleep periods, or when little else is happening, NASA will provide mission-related programs and updates.
NASA-Select TV is available as noted on these local commercial cable systems:
Comcast (Baltimore Co.) Ch. 19, noon-6 p.m.; 10 p.m.-8 a.m. daily
Comcast (Harford Co.) Ch. 62, 24 hours a day until landing
Storer/Comcast (Howard) Ch. 15, 24 hours a day, local news breaks
Mid-Atlantic (W. Howard) Ch. 15, 24 hours a day, local news breaks
Jones Intercable (Arundel) Ch. 22, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Source: Cable system managers