CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Space shuttle Atlantis and a crew of seven thundered away Monday on one last flight to the Hubble Space Telescope, setting off on a daring repair mission that NASA hopes will lift the celebrated observatory to new scientific heights.
Atlantis rose from its seaside pad about 2 p.m. EDT and arced out over the Atlantic, ducking through clouds. The Hubble was directly overhead, 560 kilometres up.
For the first time ever, another shuttle was on a nearby launch pad, primed for a rescue mission if one is needed because of a debris strike.
After seven months of delay, the astronauts were anxious to get started on the complicated, riskier-than-usual job at Hubble. They were two weeks away from launching last fall when a critical part on the telescope failed and picture-taking ceased. NASA decided it wanted to take up a spare to replace the broken unit, and it took months to get it ready.
"At this point, all I've got left to say is, 'Let's launch Atlantis,"' commander Scott Altman said just before liftoff.
"Enjoy the ride, pal," replied launch director Mike Leinbach.
Atlantis should reach the orbiting telescope Wednesday.
This is NASA's fifth and final trip to Hubble, launched 19 years ago. The stakes, as well as the dangers, are higher since astronauts last visited in 2002. Space has become more littered with junk at Hubble's altitude because of satellite collisions and breakups, and NASA now knows all too well how much damage can be done at liftoff by a piece of fuel-tank foam. Columbia was brought down by such a blow.
NASA officials said a few pieces of debris came off the external fuel tank during the first few minutes of flight, but nothing appeared to hit Atlantis. Analyses will continue for the next couple of days, and virtually every inch of the ship will be surveyed to be certain. Managers dismissed a pair of minor system problems during launch, one of them a bad engine sensor that triggered alarms aboard Atlantis.
About 30,000 people jammed Kennedy Space Center, all of them gazing skyward as Atlantis blasted off. Scientists hugged one another and posed for pictures.
"We have 60 years of Hubble between us," said Ed Weiler, NASA's science mission chief, his arm around senior project scientist David Leckrone. "It's bittersweet ... I know this one is the last one. On the other hand, I know that Hubble is going to be better than ever once the astronauts do their thing."
Leckrone was also wistful: "It's the end of the era of Hubble servicing."
Hubble is way overdue for a tune-up.
Two spacewalking teams will replace the 19-year-old Hubble's batteries and gyroscopes, install two new cameras and take a crack at fixing two broken science instruments, something never before attempted. Those instruments, loaded with bolts and fasteners, were not designed to be tinkered with in space.
The astronauts also will remove the science data-handling unit that failed in September and had to be revived, and put in an old spare that was hustled into operation. Fresh insulating covers will be added to the outside of the telescope, and a new fine guidance sensor for pointing will be hooked up.
Five spacewalks will be needed to accomplish everything. The work is so tricky and intricate that two of the repairmen are Hubble veterans, John Grunsfeld and Michael Massimino. Grunsfeld, the chief repairman, is making an unprecedented third trip to the telescope. Altman, the commander, also has previously flown to Hubble.
"We'll give it our best," Altman said at liftoff.
All told, it's a $1 billion mission. The space telescope, over the decades, represents a $10 billion investment. It was launched amid considerable hoopla in 1990, but quickly found to be nearsighted, producing blurred images, because of a flawed mirror.
Corrective lenses were installed in 1993 during what NASA's science mission chief, Ed Weiler, calls "the miracle in space mission." The results were stunning and included the acclaimed "pillars of creation" image of Eagle Nebula, a star-forming region 6,500 light years away.
With all the newest pieces, NASA hopes to keep Hubble churning out breathtaking views of the universe for another five to 10 years. The new cameras should enable the observatory to peer deeper into the cosmos and collect an unprecedented amount of data.
"I personally believe the stakes for science are very high," Leckrone said.
Atlantis will be flying in an unusually high orbit for a space shuttle. Space is more strewn with satellite and rocket parts there, and the odds of a catastrophic strike are greater. In addition, there's always the chance the shuttle could be damaged during liftoff by a piece of fuel-tank insulating foam or other debris, which doomed Columbia in 2003.
NASA cancelled this last Hubble mission in 2004, saying it was too dangerous. Atlantis would not be able to get to the international space station, which is in another orbit, and would have only 25 days of air.
The mission was reinstated two years later by the space agency's new boss, but only after shuttle flights had resumed and repair techniques had been developed. As an added precaution, another shuttle was ordered to be on standby, in case Atlantis suffered irreparable damage.
Endeavour, the rescue ship, is ready to lift off within a week to save the six men and one woman aboard Atlantis. It will remain on standby, as little as three days from launching, until Atlantis heads back home May 22.
This is the last time a shuttle flies somewhere other than the space station, and NASA doesn't expect to have shuttles on both pads again.
Associated Press writer Mike Schneider contributed to this report.
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