May 8, 2009 / 9:48 PM / in 10 years

Countdown begins for shuttle launch to Hubble

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Countdown clocks at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida began ticking toward Monday’s launch of shuttle Atlantis on a final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope, officials said on Friday.

The crew of the space shuttle Atlantis STS-125 (L to R) mission specialist's Megan McArthur, Michael Good, pilot Gregory Johnson, commander Scott Altman, mission specialist's John Grunsfeld, Michael Massimino and Andrew Feustel stand for a group photo after arriving at the shuttle landing facility at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, May 8, 2009. REUTERS/Scott Audette

“Hello Florida, it’s great to be here — at last,” shuttle commander Scott Altman told reporters shortly after he and his crew arrived at the spaceport late Friday afternoon. “It’s been a long road to get here. We’re all thrilled.”

Altman, pilot Greg Johnson, flight engineer Megan McArthur and spacewalkers John Grunsfeld, Michael Massimino, Michael Good and Andrew Feustel are due to spend 11 days in orbit to repair two of Hubble’s science instruments, install a new imager and a new light-splitting spectrograph and replace Hubble’s gyroscopes, batteries and a computer, among other tasks.

“We’re ready to give Hubble a hug,” Grunsfeld said.

Launched in 1990, Hubble is a joint NASA and European Space Agency project that has been key to determining that the universe is expanding at an increasingly faster rate, that black holes inhabit the centers of most galaxies and that planets are born from dusty disks surrounding stars.

The telescope also made the first measurements of chemicals in the atmosphere of a planet in another solar system.

As NASA prepared for Atlantis’ launch at 2:01 p.m. EDT (1801 GMT) Monday, an independent review board headed by former Lockheed Martin Chairman Norm Augustine began organizing an assessment of the U.S. human spaceflight program for President Barack Obama.

“We’re going to take a fresh look, and go where the facts are, and basically call it the way we see it,” Augustine told reporters during a conference call on Friday.

NASA plans to end the space shuttle program in 2010 after nine more missions, including next week’s flight to fix Hubble. The remaining flights will occur to complete construction and outfitting of the International Space Station, a $100 billion, 16-nation program in development for more than a decade.

The agency then plans to switch to Apollo-style capsules and disposable rockets as part of the Constellation program, with a goal of landing astronauts on the moon by 2020. NASA staged a series of six lunar expeditions between 1969 and 1972 as part of the Apollo program.

The United States already has spent more than $6 billion on Constellation and plans to shift funds from the shuttle and station program to ramp up development after 2010.

Among the issues Augustine’s committee will consider is whether to cut off funding for the space station after 2015, five years after the outpost is finally finished and fully staffed.

“We are planning to spend billions of dollars on the human spaceflight program and it’s wise to make sure we’re spending that the way we should,” Augustine said.

“We have a new administration and it would probably be imprudent on their part not to examine this major of a program to be sure that such a long-term undertaking is still on course that makes sense to them.”

“One of the chronic problems that NASA has encountered over the years is that it has more programs than money and that can be dangerous when you do something as difficult as what NASA does,” Augustine said.

The report from the Review of the United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee is expected in August.

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