May 11, 2009 -- Space Shuttle Atlantis thundered into a hazy blue sky at Florida's Kennedy Space Center on Monday, on its way to rescue the Hubble Space Telescope, whose batteries, cameras and gyroscopes are badly in need of replacement.
Seven astronauts are on board the shuttle, led by Cdr. Scott Altman. Despite one warning signal right after liftoff, they safely reached orbit within eight minutes. They are flying at more than 17,200 miles per hour.
If all goes well, they will catch up with the Hubble, 350 miles out in orbit, on Wednesday. Then they will begin five days of space walks to repair the telescope.
This mission --designated STS 125 by NASA -- is the last chance to save the Hubble -- and it's a mission that nearly didn't happen at all.
Astronauts and scientists had to fight to restore the mission.
Shaken by the Columbia disaster in 2003, NASA actually cancelled the planned fifth Hubble repair mission, as they thought it was much too dangerous because there was no easy way to rescue the crew if something damaged the space shuttle.
"The bulk of the people said this is crazy," astronomer Sandra Faber said. "It is not that much risky. Nobody in my community really bought the risk argument. And to compound the issue was the fact that at that time there were 27 flights scheduled to finish the space station, which astronomers can't see that much use for. The astronauts are chomping at the bit to go fix Hubble because they love it."
Astronauts like John Grunsfeld say Hubble's potential is infinite.
"Each time we go back to Hubble we re-invent the telescope, we bring up new instruments allowing Hubble to see new areas we have never seen before," he said. "And so what I always think about is, when we put the new wide-field camera in or the cosmic origins spectrograph in -- two of the new instruments -- what will be that next great discovery that no one has thought of before?"
Grunsfeld will be making his fifth spaceflight on this mission, and this is his third trip to Hubble.
The Risks Facing Atlantis Shuttle
But when NASA talks about the risks facing the astronauts, they don't just mean the possibilty of debris hitting the orbiter during launch, which was what happened to Columbia. They also mean the threat of micro-meteorites hitting the orbiter while the astronauts are fixing Hubble.
Hubble orbits about 350 miles above Earth, in an area with a higher density of debris. Earlier this year two satellites collided over Siberia, which has increased the risk even more, as junk from that collision drifts lower.
As soon as Atlantis fixes Hubble, and releases it back into orbit, it will immediately maneuver to a lower altitude to reduce chances of getting hit by space junk.
Full-Scale Rescue Mission Ready if Needed
The most dramatic step NASA has taken to reduce risk is the preparation of a full-scale rescue mission.
In the event that Atlantis sustains damages the crew cannot repair, a second space shuttle, Endeavor, is standing by on another launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center to rescue crew members.
STS 400 can be ready in three days if a rescue is necessary.
Spacewalker Mike Massimino, a member of the Atlantis crew, admits the risk.
"In this case, it is a little bit different because we are not going to the space station," he said.
"Most space shuttle missions go to the space station. With us there is no place to stay on the telescope," he said. "So we would be stuck in the shuttle until someone could come rescue us, we don't have that much time, and we don't have the luxury of hanging around."
Why Is Hubble Worth Saving?
As Hubble ages, some wonder if it's even worth it to save the space telescope. But astronauts argue that with repairs, Hubble could continue to make groundbreaking dicoveries.
Steve Hawley flew on two previous missions to fix and upgrade Hubble and he believes Hubble has profoundly changed our view of the universe.
"Scientifically, I think we'll easily be able to say it rewrote the astronomy text books. What we know today is remarkable compared to what we knew before we launched Hubble," Hawley said.
Faber says the repairs will make Hubble a more remarkable telescope.
"The new instruments on Hubble will complete the wave length coverage in the existing camera, the ACS," he said. "The new cameras are going to take pictures in the ultraviolet and the infrared so we will get the whole spectrum, the whole Oreo cookie if you will. The middle and the two ends."
Hubble's Bumpy Road to Success
Launched with great fanfare, the 19-year-old space telescope was immediately labeled a failure because its mirror was the wrong shape and its pictures were fuzzy.
But it turned into the comeback story of the decade after the first space shuttle repair mission fixed the problem. Hubble quickly made history.
Hubble's Contributions Are 'Groundbreaking'
Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, who gave the go-ahead in 2006 for the Atlantis mission, said one of Hubble's major contributions was helping to establish the existence of dark energy and dark matter.
"Hubble showed that 96 percent of the universe consists of those two things, and all that we see around is only 4 or 5 percent of the entire universe. If that isn't still in the history books a thousand years from now I will be surprised. That has got to be right at the very top," he said.
"Hubble's role in helping to make the first observations of the atmosphere around the extra solar planet, that has to be key," he said. "Hubble's role in establishing the value of the Hubble constant, the expansion rate of the universe, to within about 10 percent, thus allowing us for the first time to really pin down the age of the universe to around 13.7 or so billion years, to within 10 percent is groundbreaking."
What Will This Mission Accomplish?
Commander Scott Altman will have to find Hubble in orbit, and gently rendezvous with the telescope. Once this is done, astronaut Megan McArthur will carefully use the space shuttle robotic arm to grab Hubble and lower it in Atlantis' payload bay.
Hubble will get new batteries, new gyroscopes, new thermal blankets, new data processors and new cameras. It won't be easy and will include five grueling back-to-back spacewalks in very challenging, tight conditions.
The astronauts will also replace parts that were never meant to be replaced, according to Matt Mountain, director of the Hubble Space Telescope.
"They're going to try and pull out boards wearing boxing gloves -- it's like changing the board of your home computers wearing boxing gloves in a vacuum and they've never done this before," he said. "Can you imagine taking out 110 tiny screws with massive great gloves, not losing any, then pulling out boards putting new boards in?
"I think to do real engineering in space like this is audacious and it will bring Hubble to its apex," he said.
This Mission to Make Hubble 100 Times More Powerful
It will be challenging work, admits spacewalker Drew Feustel, who has spent hundreds of hours training for these tasks. He has a great mechanical background, and is a garage tinkerer. These talents will be exceptionally useful in this mission.
"It's a really special opportunity to be able to go there and see it and put my hands on it and make it better," he said.
Mountain says Hubble will be almost 100 times more powerful after this mission.
"We are going to find things that we have no idea what we are going to see, we are going to see parts of the universe we have never seen before," he said. "We are going to find extra solar planets and atmospheres around them and give a first hint [of] what planets can be made of and, ultimately, is there life out there."
It will take three months after the mission ends for the first images to come back from the newly improved Hubble telescope.
The STS 125 crew will be waiting anxiously to receive the new pictures.
"Hubble's capability to take us out there, not just the edge of space, out to the edge of our universe, and see all those things, every night, on a summer night when I looked out at the stars and wondered what was out there, Hubble has taken me there and captured my imagination," Altman said.
For Grunseld, the most exciting part is this: "When we are all done, Hubble will be in the best shape that it has ever been in. I think a lot of people had written the telescope off as just being an old telescope and not worth going back to. We are going to prove them all wrong."