CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — With the successful Saturday return of the space shuttle Discovery, the stage is set for NASA?s next flight: the final visit to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Discovery?s seven-astronaut crew landed at 11:15 a.m. EDT (1515 GMT) here at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center after a successful two-week mission that delivered Japan?s billion-dollar Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station (ISS).
?It?s great to be here on the runway in sunny Florida,? Discovery commander Mark Kelly said after the smooth landing. ?The vehicle?s in good shape, which we always like to see it that way.?
Discovery?s return to Earth clears the way for the planned Oct. 8 launch of its sister ship Atlantis, which is set to fly one last mission to overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope before NASA turns its full attention to completing the space station by 2010 and retiring its three-orbiter fleet.
But first, NASA has to fix blast damage to its prime shuttle launch site — Pad 39A — after Discovery?s liftoff ripped some 5,300 heat-resistant bricks from their concrete moorings at the 1960s-era pad.
NASA has two seaside shuttle launch sites, Pad 39A and Pad 39B, but is converting the latter to host future flights of its new Ares I rocket and Orion crew capsules. However, both pads are required for the Hubble mission since, unlike station-bound flights, Atlantis astronauts won?t have the safe haven of the ISS to turn to if their spacecraft is damaged because the space telescope is in a different orbit. Instead, a second shuttle would be readied at Pad 39B to serve as a rescue ship, NASA has said.
Michael Leinbach, NASA?s shuttle launch director, said there is ample time to complete repairs to Pad 39A before late August, when the agency plans to roll Atlantis out to the Pad 39A.
?A lot of folks feel like we have pretty sufficient amount of time available to do a repair and make it flyable again, well in time for the Hubble mission,? Leinbach said. ?It?s a significant job, but the team is up to it.?
With nearly four months until the next launch, a planned gap due to fuel tank delays, there should also be enough time to give shuttle engineers some well-deserved time off, he added.
Orbital science ahead
In the meantime, NASA plans to make the most of the months between now and the next shuttle flight to the space station, a logistics flight currently slated to lift off on Nov. 10 aboard the Endeavour orbiter.
William Gerstenmaier, NASA?s associate administrator of space operations, said he expects U.S. astronaut Gregory Chamitoff and his two Russian crewmates aboard the station to take advantage of the shuttle lull to perform science in the station?s new Kibo laboratory and Europe?s Columbus lab, which was delivered earlier this year. Chamitoff arrived at the station last week aboard Discovery and replaced U.S. astronaut Garrett Reisman as an Expedition 17 flight engineer.
Built by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Japan?s 37-foot (11-meter) Kibo lab is about the size of a large tour bus and the largest room ever launched to the space station. JAXA officials hope to begin the first experiments in the module in August to christen a Japanese space laboratory that has been more than 20 years in the making.
?I was personally moved that Kibo is now in space,? said JAXA vice president Kaoru Mamiya, who remembers helping to plan the new laboratory on paper two decades ago. ?It was my dream to see Kibo in space and that dream has come true.?
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