NASA Cleans Up Cargo for Hubble Shuttle Flight
Space shuttle Atlantis comes to a stop on the top of Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center after more than a 6-hour journey from the VAB on Sept. 4, 2008. The shuttle is due for an October 2008 launch to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Credit: Kim Shiflett.

NASA engineers are preparing once more to move a container filled with new instruments and spare parts for the Hubble Space Telescope to the waiting shuttle Atlantis after cleaning up bits of contamination from inside some of the delicate hardware, space agency officials said Thursday.

The cargo container is due to be hauled out to NASA?s seaside Pad 39A launch site at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., ?Saturday evening — two days late — though the agency is still targeting an Oct. 10 liftoff for Atlantis, NASA spokesperson Candrea Thomas told SPACE.com.

?Right now we?re evaluating the work to be done,? Thomas said, adding that top shuttle officials will set a formal launch date for Atlantis during a two-day meeting to begin Oct. 2.

Shuttle engineers initially planned to move the cargo to Atlantis today, but had to stand down Wednesday after discovering loose bits of insulation inside a plastic-wrapped bag protecting a pallet packed with fresh batteries for Hubble and the space telescope?s new Wide Field Camera 3. The insulation had broken loose, then been blown about inside the protective bag by a purge system, NASA officials said.

NASA has no days left to spare if it is to ready Atlantis and its cargo in time for the planned Oct. 10 launch of seven astronauts on one last service call to Hubble. If the lost time cannot be made up, the 11-day servicing mission?s launch could slip a few days.

Commanded by veteran astronaut Scott Altman, Atlantis? crew plans to stage five back-to-back spacewalks to install new cameras, gyroscopes, batteries, a docking ring and other equipment, as well as make tricky repairs to extend Hubble?s operational life through at least 2013.

But first, the container with Hubble?s new instruments and spare parts must be installed inside the cargo bay of Atlantis at the launch pad. The payload canister is expected to begin the 3.5-mile (5.6-km) trek to Pad 39A Saturday evening at 6:00 p.m. EDT (2200 GMT), Thomas said.

?It?s about a four-hour process, so it should be there somewhere around 10:00 p.m.,? she added.

While engineers prepare to move the cargo to Atlantis, the space shuttle?s sister ship Endeavour is being primed for a move of its own.

Shuttle technicians are due to move Endeavour out of NASA?s massive Vehicle Assembly Building early Thursday at 12:01 a.m. EDT (0401 GMT) for a 4.2-mile (6.7-km) trip to the nearby Launch Pad 39B.

Endeavour is due to launch toward the International Space Station on Nov. 12 from Pad 39A to deliver fresh food, supplies and new life support equipment designed to support six-astronaut crews, twice the size of current station expeditions. Before that, however, Endeavour must stand by atop Pad 39B to serve as a rescue ship for Atlantis and its Hubble-servicing astronaut crew.

Because Atlantis must fly higher and in a different inclination that the space station to reach Hubble, the shuttle will not be able to ferry its astronaut crew to the orbiting laboratory to await rescue if its heat shield is damaged beyond repair. NASA is priming Endeavour and a skeleton crew of four astronauts commanded by veteran spaceflyer Dominic Gorie to retrieve the Atlantis crew and scuttle the stricken orbiter, though mission managers and the astronauts, themselves, have said it is extremely unlikely that any such rescue will be required.

?It?s a very low probability of an event, but I?m glad that there?s a relatively robust plan to deal with it if it did happen,? Altman has said in a NASA interview.

After completing their Hubble overhaul, Altman and his crew are currently slated to land late Oct. 20 at the Kennedy Space Center, after which NASA would move Endeavour into launch position atop Pad 39A, the agency has said.

Atlantis? mission to Hubble will be NASA?s fourth of up to five shuttle flights planned for 2008. Thursday?s rollout of Endeavour to Launch Pad 39B will mark the first time since 2001 that two space shuttles have been at their respective launch pads at the same time.

  • Video - Hubble Service Mission 4 Countdown
  • New Hubble Images - When Galaxies Collide
  • Video - Coming Soon: The Final Flight to Hubble