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Atlantis Embarks on Last Hubble Telescope Repair Mission

May 11, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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The space shuttle Atlantis lifted off Monday on the fifth and final mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. The crew will add a new camera and make other changes. Spencer Michels reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the space shuttle goes on a rescue-and-repair mission. We have a NewsHour Science Unit report by correspondent Spencer Michels.

SPENCER MICHELS: It is a crucial rescue-and-repair mission to give new life to the ailing, but extremely valuable Hubble telescope.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis soared into space from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center just after 2:00 this afternoon, carrying a crew of six whose principal job is to fix the giant telescope.

Today’s launch was the start of the final and possibly most difficult service call yet. The shuttle will join the telescope 353 miles above the Earth, and the encounter will last 11 days, as the Hubble orbits the Earth every 97 minutes.

The precision of the work demanded makes this Hubble visit especially daunting. There’s the need for 31 hours of risky spacewalks and the danger of flying space debris. NASA officials said today’s launch with a bittersweet moment.

ED WEILER, NASA: I’m happy to see the launch, but it’s sad knowing it’s the last shuttle-prepared mission for the Hubble Space Telescope. But I’m looking forward to a successful repair and yet five, six, seven more years of Hubble.

Hubble had 'rocky start'

SPENCER MICHELS: During its lifetime, the telescope has sent back dazzling pictures from space, pictures of a stellar nursery where new stars were born.

It's provided scientists and laymen with the deepest look ever into space and into the past. These are galaxies, not individual stars, so far away that the light has taken 10 billion years to reach the Earth.

But now the 19-year-old Hubble telescope is in dire need of help. Three of its scientific instruments are broken, and half its gyroscopes, which keep it pointed in the right direction, aren't working.

ANNOUNCER: Three, two, one and liftoff of the Space Shuttle Discovery with the Hubble Space Telescope.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Hubble had a rocky start.

ED WEILER: Hubble, for those of us who've been on it for decades, is a rollercoaster. You know, there was a lot of hype down here, and everybody was excited in 1990. We launched it, made the front page of every paper in the world, and then, two months later, we were at the bottom of Death Valley.

Hubble has shown stars' births

SPENCER MICHELS: When it was first sent into space in 1990, its huge mirror that would deliver the clearest and deepest view of the universe ever achieved didn't work.

That problem wasn't fully corrected until three years later when astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor installed corrective optics and mirrors. That's when the spectacular images started coming up and capturing the public's imagination.

CAB BURGESS: The ones that show the birth of stars really get my interest just wondering, what's really going on there, you know? Is there, you know, the touch of God or something? You know, it seems kind of mystical.

RANDY HALE: They hit me as an artist. I've always -- I've got them on my computer. I look at them all the time. And they're just amazing to me. They look like they have life in them to me. I mean, I just -- you know, gives you hope about the universe out there.

Two shuttles ready to launch

SPENCER MICHELS: Hubble depended on visits from the space shuttle, the only vehicle that could reach it, for upgrades and new technology and for keeping it alive.

But the tragedy that destroyed the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 and killed all seven astronauts seemed to spell an end to those upgrade missions. NASA administrators said they didn't want to risk astronauts' lives making repairs.

But now NASA feels more confident. The agency has taken the extraordinary step of having a second space shuttle, Endeavor, ready to launch in case Atlantis suffers irreparable damage and its crew needs to be rescued.

Endeavor is positioned on a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center to serve if needed.

If the facelift succeeds, it should make Hubble 90 times more powerful than when it first was launched.

JOHN GRUNSFELD, Astronaut: Every time we get a new discovery with Hubble, it's something that's just mind-bending. You just go, "Wow."

SPENCER MICHELS: The mission should keep the telescope operational until at least 2014, but then it will go dark. There will be no more servicing flights because the Space Shuttle itself is only 17 months from retirement. A successor to Hubble, planned for the next decade, is on the drawing boards.