NASA considers moving Hubble launch up one day

NASA managers consider moving launch of shuttle Atlantis on a mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope up one day to improve odds of avoiding launch delays.

NASA managers are debating whether to move up launch of the shuttle Atlantis by one day to maximize the launch opportunities it has before reaching a May 14 deadline, officials said Wednesday.

The shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to launch at 1:31 p.m. EDT on May 12 for the fifth and final mission to service and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. But a military operation on the range will prevent any shuttle launch attempts for about a week starting May 14. That operation requires support from the Air Force Eastern Range, which provides tracking and telemetry support for all rockets launched from Florida, as well as countdown dress rehearsals and other launch-related operations by NASA, the Department of Defense, and commercial launch providers.

As a result, NASA is looking into moving the shuttle launch date up one day, which would give the agency three opportunities in a row before entering the stand-down period.

Payload canister carrying instruments and hardware bound for the Hubble Space Telescope is delivered to launch pad 39A April 18 for installation aboard shuttle Atlantis. NASA

Shuttle managers held a program-level flight readiness review (FRR) Tuesday. Another meeting was held Wednesday to discuss launch date options, and managers decided to meet again Friday for additional discussions. An executive-level FRR is scheduled for next week to review launch processing and to set an official launch date.

Sources say Atlantis can support a May 11 launch, but it's not yet clear if Hubble engineers can complete pre-launch tests in time to support an accelerated schedule.

NASA is hoping to get Atlantis off as soon as possible to avoid any problems for the next shuttle mission, a space station assembly flight by shuttle Endeavour. Endeavour currently is mounted atop launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center, on standby for launch on an emergency rescue mission if the Atlantis astronauts run into any problems that might prevent a safe re-entry.

Assuming a rescue flight is not needed, Endeavour will be moved to pad 39A and prepared for launch June 13 on the station assembly flight. But NASA will only have one week to get Endeavour off the ground in June. A so-called "beta angle cutout" will kick in June 21, preventing any shuttle visits to the station until after July 11 because of temperature constraints related to the angle between the sun and the plane of the space station's orbit.

Moving up the Atlantis launch date by one day would buy one more day of insurance to get the Hubble mission off ahead of the military range operation and at the same time, provide more cushion for the June mission. If the Atlantis flight slips behind the range operation, Endeavour's flight would face a delay to mid-July.

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About the author

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.

     

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