NASA cleared the space shuttle Atlantis for its planned Monday launch to the Hubble Space Telescope, a long-delayed mission aimed at extending the iconic observatory?s lifespan.
Mission managers here at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center held one last review Saturday that found Atlantis and its crew of seven astronauts fit to fly for the fifth and final mission to overhaul Hubble. The mission is poised to rocket spaceward Monday at 2:01 p.m. EDT (1801 GMT).
Commanded by veteran shuttle commander Scott Altman, Atlantis? 11-day mission to Hubble has been delayed since last fall, when a part failed unexpectedly aboard the 19-year-old space telescope.
?Atlantis has been on the ground for awhile, so that team is really anxious to fly,? said NASA?s shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach. ?And hopefully we?ll do that Monday.?
The shuttle has an 80 percent chance of good weather on launch day, with thick clouds and a the potential for rain at an emergency landing strip in Spain posing the only threats to liftoff, NASA officials said.
Leinbach said a second space shuttle, the Endeavour orbiter, is also primed atop its own launch pad to fly a rescue mission just in case Atlantis is damaged beyond repair during the flight. Atlantis astronauts won?t be able to seek refuge aboard the International Space Station because of Hubble?s different orbit and altitude. Hubble flies about 350 miles (563 km) above Earth and in a different orbit than the 220-mile (354-km) high space station.
NASA has prepared Endeavour to fly with a few days to a week of a declared emergency, but officials have said it the likelihood of needing the rescue mission is extremely remote.
Meanwhile, Altman and his crew have a full mission ahead of them. The astronauts plan to perform a five-spacewalk marathon that will install two new cameras aboard Hubble and attempt repairs on instruments that were never designed to be fixed in space. If all goes well, the mission should extend Hubble?s life through at least 2014.
NASA has three tries to launch Atlantis before standing down for a previously scheduled military operation at the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Base. If the shuttle does not launch by May 13, NASA would aim for a May 22 launch to wait out the military?s activity and recharge new batteries bound for Hubble.
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