Hubble repair mission OK'd

Space telescope gets reprieve as servicing flight is approved

November 01, 2006|By Frank D. Roylance and Dennis O'Brien | Frank D. Roylance and Dennis O'Brien,Sun reporters

GREENBELT -- Now that NASA has the green light to launch astronauts on one final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists and engineers in Baltimore, Greenbelt and elsewhere will have just 18 months to perfect their plan for pulling it off.

A critical part of that plan will be preparing a rescue shuttle to be fueled and poised on a second launch pad, ready to fly if the Hubble repair crew is stranded in orbit.

Although all flights will continue to be risky for their crews, "the space shuttle can be flown safely if we are very careful. And that is what we are doing," NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin said yesterday in a briefing at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

Griffin reversed what he described as a "very troubling and unpopular decision" in 2004 by his predecessor, Sean O'Keefe, to cancel further Hubble servicing flights after the space shuttle Columbia disaster the previous year.

Griffin ordered a fifth and final space shuttle mission in 2008 to service, repair and upgrade the famous 16-year-old orbiting observatory, which should extend its life to at least 2013. Without the mission, failing gyroscopes could cripple the observatory as soon as the autumn of 2008, NASA officials said.

The decision was greeted with elation at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, where the 450 employees who manage Hubble's scientific work have been living with the uncertainty for three years.

"I'm so happy the astronauts are going up. I think it's great," said Dorothy Fraquelli, an archive scientist whose job is storing data from the telescope for public access.

About 100 people, some in Halloween costumes, gathered in an auditorium to celebrate the decision with a sheet cake decorated with an image of the telescope.

Hubble's startling photos have fired imaginations worldwide and made it as popular with the public as it is with scientists.

John Boia, a software engineer wearing an Orioles uniform, said, "Hubble's not just a machine. It's a national treasure. It's really a part of us, and we're a part of it. It's a hard feeling to describe."

Their boss, institute Director Matt Mountain, added, "People work here because they know they're working with the world's greatest telescope, the telescope that's been adopted as America's telescope. That's why people come through the door every morning."

Mountain said he expects to hire 30 to 40 scientists and engineers as a result of Griffin's decision. The institute eliminated about 50 jobs 18 months ago, he said.

Griffin said he acted only after mission planners persuaded him - in meetings that concluded on Friday - that astronauts could fix Hubble and still inspect their shuttle and repair any damage that might endanger their return to Earth.

To be doubly safe, however, Griffin directed that a second shuttle be fueled, crewed and ready to fly a rescue mission in case the Hubble repair crew finds their shuttle cannot return safely from space.

Hubble's final servicing mission, originally scheduled for 2004, was cancelled after the shuttle Columbia broke up on its return to earth in on Feb. 1, 2003. Investigators concluded that a flight to the telescope carried added risks for astronauts - risks O'Keefe found unacceptable.

Although shuttle astronauts flying to the International Space Station can take refuge there if the shuttle is damaged, crews sent to Hubble would have no such haven. If they became stranded, only another shuttle could rescue them.

Griffin said their lifeboat will be a shuttle now scheduled for a 2008 construction flight to the International Space Station. During the Hubble mission, it will stand ready on a second launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center.

It could take off within days of an order to fly, Griffin said, during any of two daily launch windows. The stranded astronauts would have enough food, water and other essentials to survive for 25 days without hardship.

According to plans under discussion, the two shuttles would rendezvous and moor to each other with their robotic arms. The Hubble repair crew would then don space suits and transfer to the rescue shuttle - perhaps on a safety line between the craft - for the flight home.

Although some planners in NASA's astronaut office argued that it wasn't needed, Griffin said flatly: "We have decided we will maintain a rescue capability for this mission."

At the same time, he left no room for any further flights to Hubble. "This is it," he said.

Griffin announced that the mission commander will be Scott D. Altman, who led the fourth Hubble servicing mission in 2002. Also on board will be shuttle veterans John M. Grunsfeld, who flew to Hubble in 1999 and 2002; Michael J. Massimino, who flew on the 2002 Hubble mission, and four others.

The astronauts are already working on their repair techniques at Goddard and in the "neutral buoyancy" water tank at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

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