Hope for NASA's celebrated Hubble Space Telescope, which has produced some of the most spectacular images of the universe, hinges on an engineering meeting to analyze the risks of a shuttle mission to repair its aging systems. The meeting is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 27, and the person who will decide whether the mission takes place is NASA administrator Michael Griffin.
What engineers are wrestling with, though, is the rescue plan. If something goes wrong on a shuttle flight to fix Hubble, could the crew be saved?
"We won't have CSCS [safe haven on the International Space Station], so we have to review our launch-on-need posture. Is that something we really want to try to do, because for Hubble, we would have to have a bird on the other pad, and that has implications," he explained.
Astronaut Joe Tanner, who once flew a Hubble mission and flew on the last shuttle mission this summer, understands the risk.
"You can't get to the station from a Hubble orbit. It is physically impossible," he said. "Commit to Hubble. You are going to Hubble. Or you are coming home. Without a safe haven, how long can you stay airborne while you are trying to fix whatever problem you have? If it's not fixable, obviously you want a rescue capability. How quickly can you get that there?"
Engineers at NASA are considering prepping two shuttles in parallel, with the second shuttle waiting on the other launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center, ready to take off on short notice, something that has never been done before at the space center.
When Mike Griffin took over as NASA administrator, he revived hope that Hubble could be saved. Twenty years ago, Griffin worked as a project engineer on Hubble on a team designing a fine guidance sensor for the space telescope.
The accident, which doomed the crew of the space shuttle Columbia, put the Hubble mission scheduled for 2005 on the chopping block.
It was much too dangerous to send a space shuttle to service Hubble, according to former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe. Almost immediately after President Bush announced the Moon Mars Initiative, O'Keefe canceled SM4 -- the shuttle mission to save Hubble.
"Could we do this and take the risk? Sure, but somebody else would have to make that decision, not me, because I'm not doing it,'' O'Keefe said.
Hubble became the first casualty of President Bush's new exploration vision. So Hubble's batteries would wear out and the space agency would guide it through Earth's atmosphere to plunge to its death in the Pacific Ocean.
The formal announcement of a Hubble rescue mission comes on October 31, when NASA announces the crew for the mission.
This crew has already trained for months in the underwater training facility at the Johnson Space Center. ABC News has watched this crew train -- on monitors at our office at the space center, but those bulky spacesuits have kept their identities safe.
This mission would launch in early 2008 and would require five back-to-back spacewalks by two teams of spacewalkers. The fixes for Hubble include new batteries, a new wide field camera, and a Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, plus a new fine guidance sensor and a new outer protective layer.
NASA has already flown four missions to service Hubble. This will be he fifth and final mission, which should keep Hubble running through 2013.
Hubble has been so wildly successful it has defined much of what we know about our universe. Mike Griffin said that is why Hubble is worth saving.
"Hubble is one of the great observatories. It has revealed fundamental things about the universe of which we had no idea and would have had no idea with Hubble," Griffin said. "It is one of the great scientific instruments of all time."