CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The space shuttle that will carry NASA’s last crew to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope was moved to its Florida launch pad on Tuesday in preparation for liftoff on May 12.
Shuttle Atlantis and its crew of seven astronauts were due to launch six months ago, but the failure of a computer aboard Hubble prompted NASA to delay the flight.
Replacing the computer, which prepares data from Hubble’s science instruments to be relayed back to Earth, was added to the long list of chores the astronauts will tackle during five days of spacewalks.
Hubble, which has been using a backup computer to format its science data, has been operating well, but is only expected to last another couple of years without another servicing call by shuttle astronauts. Astronomers view Hubble as an important source of scientific data about the universe.
Riding atop a slow-moving Apollo-era transporter, Atlantis emerged from the Kennedy Space Center’s assembly building at around 4 a.m. EDT to begin the 3.5-mile trek to the seaside shuttle launch complex. The ride took more than six hours.
In three weeks, Atlantis will be joined by shuttle Endeavour on a nearby launch pad that is being refurbished for use by the Orion spaceships set to replace the shuttles.
NASA wants a second shuttle ready to fly in case Atlantis sustains critical damage during launch, as its crew will not be within range of the International Space Station to seek shelter while a possible rescue mission is prepared.
In-flight inspections and rescue plans have been part of all NASA shuttle missions since the fleet returned to flight following the 2003 loss of Columbia.
Seven astronauts died when the shuttle broke apart as it headed for a landing in Florida, the result of a heat shield breach caused by a piece of falling foam debris during liftoff 16 days earlier.
In addition to tracing the roots of the accident, investigators recommended that the remaining three shuttles be retired upon completion of the space station, which depends on the shuttle for construction. The U.S. space agency expects to finish the $100 billion orbital outpost, a project involving 16 countries, next year and retire the fleet.
After the accident, then-NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe canceled the fifth and final servicing call to Hubble, saying it was too risky. One of the first orders of business for O’Keefe’s replacement was to re-examine the issue.
NASA drew up alternative plans for a rescue and other safety enhancements, and the mission to return to the telescope was restored to the shuttle’s manifest.
In addition to installing new batteries, gyroscopes and the replacement computer, Hubble is due to receive a new camera to extend its vision into ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths and a light-splitting spectrograph sensitive enough to analyze photons emitted from the universe’s earliest galaxies.
After the upgrades, Hubble is expected to remain operational until at least 2013.
Editing by Will Dunham