MIT Astronaut Returns to Space to Make Final Hubble Telescope Fixes

Seven astronauts blasted off Monday for one last dance with the Hubble Space Telescope.

The space shuttle Atlantis, commanded by Scott D. Altman, a retired Navy captain, bolted through the sky on a pillar of smoke and fire just after 2 p.m. The Atlantis is carrying 22,000 pounds of custom-designed tools, replacement parts and new instruments to slice and dice starlight and excite scientists and stargazers everywhere.

The shuttle is rushing toward a Wednesday rendezvous with the telescope, which happened to be floating about 350 miles directly above Cape Canaveral at launching time.

If all goes well in five spacewalks starting Thursday morning, the crew members will revamp and refresh the telescope, which has dazzled the public and the science community with its cosmic postcards. Then they will say goodbye forever on behalf of humanity. Sometime in the middle of the next decade, the Hubble will run out of juice, and it will eventually be crashed into the ocean.

Besides Altman, the crew includes Gregory C. Johnson, also a retired Navy captain, as pilot; and Andrew J. Feustel, Col. Michael T. Good of the Air Force, John M. Grunsfeld, Michael J. Massimino PhD ’92 and K. Megan McArthur as mission specialists.

The Atlantis astronauts will spend Tuesday examining the shuttle with cameras, looking for any dings or nicks or holes caused by flying debris during the launching. The shuttle Columbia was doomed in 2003 because a hunk of insulating foam broke off the external fuel tank and damaged the tiles that protected the spacecraft from the searing heat of re-entering the atmosphere.

“The sad thing is if we get to orbit and see something bad and get waved off and don’t get to fix Hubble,” Grunsfeld said. “That would be the saddest.”

After a preliminary review of video after the launching, NASA engineers said there appeared to be little to be concerned about.

Changes to the design of the fuel tank have made it less likely to sustain major damage during launching. The bigger risk this time around comes from micrometeoroids and space junk, which are more prevalent in Hubble’s orbit than at the space station’s lower one. There is about a 1 in 229 chance of a catastrophic collision, so the astronauts will take another close look at their craft at the end of the mission.

The astronauts carry a tool kit for fixing small holes or cracks in the fragile tiles. If there is something they cannot fix, they will hunker down and await the shuttle Endeavour, which is sitting on another launching pad, ready to blast off with a four-man crew and retrieve the Atlantis astronauts from danger.

As the plume left by the shuttle dissipated on Monday, engineers and astronomers who had been working on the telescope, some of them their entire careers, shared high fives and hugs and tears as they celebrated the commencement of a mission that had been left for dead five years ago, when it was thought to be too risky.

“I’m glad I had sunglasses on,” said David Leckrone, the Hubble project scientist, from Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Ed Weiler, head of space science for NASA, who has worked on Hubble since the 1970s, called this launching “bittersweet,” since it was the last destined for the telescope. But if all goes well, he said, “I am confident that we will have five, six, eight more years of Hubble.”

The repair mission comes as NASA is once again at a crossroads. The agency lacks a permanent administrator; Christopher Scolese has been acting administrator since Michael D. Griffin stepped down in January, and the White House is said to have been having trouble finding a candidate.

The agency has begun laying off workers as part of the decision to retire the shuttles next year. And last week, President Barack Obama ordered a review of the agency’s plan to return humans to the moon and of the Constellation spacecraft that are to succeed the shuttle.

So the flight Monday was not just the beginning of the last act for the Hubble but also the beginning of the end for the space shuttle, whose greatest legacy might very well be the role it played in the repair and maintenance of the Hubble. Altman recently called it “an incredible example of how humans and machines can work together.”

Grunsfeld, who has earned the sobriquet “Hubble repairman” for his previous exploits in space with the telescope, said: “The only reason Hubble works is because we have a space shuttle. And of all things we do, I think Hubble is probably the best thing we use it for.”

As Mario Livio, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, put it, “It’s not just a telescope, it’s the people’s telescope.”