Why Is NASA Launching a Shuttle to the Hubble Telescope?

Why is NASA launching a shuttle to the Hubble telescope?

The Hubble telescope, which provides unprecendented views of deep space, is damaged, and is basically inoperable. NASA is sending up a crew to attempt repairs.

As we sit waiting for news of the coming launch of the Atlantis shuttle, another shuttle is poised for launch. That means that both of NASA’s shuttle launch pads are occupied — a rare occasion. Atlantis is on one, primed for a flight this coming week to the Hubble Space Telescope.

The space shuttle Endeavour sits on the other launch pad, a full mile away from Atlantis, prepared for launch in case it is needed for a mission that no one wants. Endeavour is on standby in case the seven astronauts who go up on Atlantis need to be rescued. This has never been done before at NASA — an unprecedented move that can’t make the Atlantis astronauts feel great about their chances.

Shuttle Atlantis and its crew are headed into outer space for one final repair job on the now 19 year old Hubble Space Telescope. It’s a trip that was canceled almost five years ago because the risk was considered greater than the potential reward. After yet another delay, the launch is finally scheduled for Monday May 11, 2009.

The risk of the mission lies in the fact that shuttle astronauts won’t have the respite of the international space station to depend on. If Atlantis suffers serious damage during launch or while in flight, the astronauts will not be in the relative comfort and safe of the ISS — where they could take refuge for weeks while awaiting a ride home from NASA. They would be stranded on their spacecraft near the Hubble, where NASA estimates they could stay alive for just about 25 days before running out of air or other supplies.

In an interview, the Atlantis astronauts say there’s a slim chance any rescue will be needed, and they say they would fly to Hubble even if there were no such backup plan. Such is the attitude of America’s astronauts.

In fact Scott Altman, Atlantis’ commander, said it may seem like overkill to some of his colleagues, but having a rescue ship ready on the launch pad is the right thing for NASA to do.

“It’s kind of a belt-and-suspenders approach. But if you need the belt after your suspenders fail, you would be glad you had it,” said Altman, a retired Navy captain and former fighter pilot.

Space shuttle Endeavour and four more astronauts would need to blast off quickly on a rescue mission should NASA determine that Atlantis is too damaged to fly home.

Because the area around Hubble is littered with debris and garbage, the Atlantic crew faces a pretty good chance of damage to the ship from such debris. On top of the normal dangers associated with launch and landing , the Atlantis crew has about a 1-in-229 chance of being struck by a piece of space junk or a micrometeoroid. Needless to say, such an event would cause catastrophic damage to their ship. When you’re 350 miles above the surface of the Earth, the tiniest piece of debris can really throw a wrench into your plans. To improve their odds of a clean launch and repair mission, Atlantis astronauts will immediately fly to a lower and much cleaner altitude as soon as the repair work on Hubble is completed.

NASA took similar precautions against a rescue in 1973 during its first space station program, Skylab. The difference now is that a rescue shuttle is prepped and ready for launch RIGHT NOW — in 1973, a crew and a shuttle were readied but not set up. Fortunately, a rescue wasn’t needed back in 73.

Once Atlantis is in flight, final preparations for the Endeavour rescue will begin, said launch director Mike Leinbach in an interview. Apparently, “if it even begins to smell” like a rescue might be needed, Endeavour will be ready to go. Endeavour will be seven days from liftoff ready at the time of Atlantis’ launch on Monday. Just to be safe, NASA will continue to prep Endeavour even if there is no immediate indication of launch damage. In fact, launch preparations for the rescue shuttle will continue until Endeavour reaches a mark that is three days from lifting off. NASA plans to keep the rescue shuttle at that three day point until Atlantis is back safely on Earth.

Because of prior trouble with the Hubble mission, NASA decided to assign a new and “fresher” four man crew to the rescue mission. The Hubble mission suffered a seven-month delay last fall due to a telescope breakdown.

Following the Columbia tragedy in 2003, in which all seven astronauts on board were killed, NASA has had a rescue plan in case of irreparable damage. Columbia was hit by fuel tank foam that broke off during liftoff, and its left wing melted from the inside out during re-entry. This caused the shuttle to break apart. But there has never been a need to have the rescue ship at the launch pad, all primed and ready to go, the way it is now. The reason? All the missions since the Columbia disaster have been to the space station, where astronauts could camp out for over two months. All shuttle trips after this mission will be headed to the ISS as well. This trip simply can’t plan a stop at the ISS, as there is more pressing work to be done on Hubble. In fact, in 2004, NASA’s boss decided the trip to Hubble was too dangerous precisely because of the shuttle’s inability to hop from Hubble to the ISS.

If Atlantis suffers damage too severe for in flight repairs, the rescue craft Endeavour will fly up and use a 50-foot robot arm to literally grab hold of the damaged Atlantis shuttle. The Atlantis astronauts would put on spacesuits and float, a few at a time, over to the relative safety of Endeavour. Endeavour would then return to base with all 11 astronauts in tow.