Rescue Ship For Hubble Shuttle Flight Moves to Launch Pad

Rescue Ship For Hubble Shuttle Flight Moves to Launch Pad
The rising sun begins to cast its glow over space shuttle Endeavour on Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida after its April 17, 2009 rollout. The shuttle is poised as a rescue ship for a May Hubble flight. If all goes well, it will launch June 13 on an ISS construction flight. (Image credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller.)

The spaceshuttle Endeavour rolled out to a Florida launch pad on Friday to stand by for anunprecedented rescue mission NASA hopes it never has to fly.

Endeavour arrivedat Launch Pad 39B at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 7:17a.m. EDT (1117 GMT), where it will be primed to launch within weeks of anyemergency aboard its sister ship Atlantis during next month?s riskyrepair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. Atlantis is poised atop itsown launch pad for a planned May 12 liftoff.

?It?s thefirst time that anyone has had a rescue mission standing by,? NASA spokespersonAllard Beutel told from the Florida spaceport. ?We thought itgives us that amount of extra insurance.?

Endeavourhas actually made the trek to the launch pad once before to serve as the upcoming Hubble mission?srescue ship. The shuttle was on standby last September until a failure aboardHubble delayed a planned October launch for Atlantis.

Altogether,two orbiters have been at their launch pads simultaneously only 18 times in NASA?s28-year history of shuttle flight, Beutel said.

?We really doexpect this to be the last time we ever have two space shuttles on the launchpad at the same time,? he added.

Riskyrepair flight

NASA hassaid the likelihood of requiring a rescue mission for the sevenHubble-bound astronauts is extremely remote. But the space agency is takingthe precaution because unlike recent shuttle flights to the International SpaceStation, where astronauts could seek shelter if their spacecraft is severelydamaged, the crew of Atlantis will have no such safe haven.

Commandedby veteran NASA astronaut Scott Altman, Atlantis is poised to launch toward Hubbleon May 12 from Launch Pad 39A, which is near Endeavour?s current perch. The much-delayedmission is NASA?s final shuttle flight to overhaul Hubble and includes fiveback-to-back spacewalks to repair broken equipment, add new instruments andextend the iconic space telescope?s lifetime through at least 2014.

Because Hubbleflies in a higher orbit and different inclination than the International SpaceStation, Atlantis would be unable to reach the orbiting laboratory if it suffers acritical failure or severe damage its vital heat shield. The mission alsoincludes a higher risk ofdamage from orbital debris or micrometeorites, though that risk increase appears to be lower than initially thought, NASA officials have said.

It is becauseof the lack of a safe haven aboard the station that NASA optedto prepare Endeavour for a potential rescue. The shuttle is already slated tofly a space station construction mission in June, but will be primed to launch witha skeleton crew relatively soon after an emergency is declared, Beutel said.

?Withinthat timeframe, we would be prepared to launch Endeavour with a crew of fourastronauts,? Beutel said, adding that the Atlantis astronauts would stageseveral spacewalks to abandon their ship and return home aboard Endeavour. ?Wewould then splash Atlantis down safely somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.?

Shuttle double duty

If Atlantis?sHubble mission goes smoothly as planned, Endeavour would simply bemoved to the adjacent launch pad in late May for a planned June 13 launch to theInternational Space Station, Beutel said.

NASA plansto launch its remaining shuttle missions from Launch Pad 39A and use the nearbyPad 39B for its newAres I rocket and Orion capsules, which will replace the agency?s spaceshuttle fleet, once Endeavour is moved, he added.

Over theweekend, NASA will deliver the hardware for Atlantis?s Hubble mission to theshuttle?s launch pad, offering a relatively rare sight of two shuttles exposed atoptheir pads with their shroud-like service structures retracted. The twospacecraft are expected to be visible through Monday and will be photographedfrom the ground and air, Beutel said, adding that NASA expects about 50,000 peopleto visit the space center during a Saturday employee Family Day.

?I think peopleare really excited about it,? Beutel said.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.