The Hubble Space Telescope, hobbled by old age and years of post-Columbia neglect, was plucked out of open space by the crew of the shuttle Atlantis on Wednesday, setting the stage for a final five-spacewalk overhaul to give the iconic observatory an extended lease on life.
Commander Scott Altman, who flew an F-14 jet in the movie "Top Gun," deftly maneuvered the orbiter to within a few dozen feet of the 24,500-pound telescope as the two spacecraft sailed through space in lockstep, covering 84 football fields per second high above western Australia.
Astronaut Megan McArthur, operating the shuttle's 50-foot-long robot arm with easy grace, then grappled the huge observatory at 1:14 p.m. to wrap up a two-day rendezvous.
"Houston, Atlantis, Hubble has arrived on board," Altman exclaimed.
"Atlantis, Houston, we copy. Nice job, Megan, nice job on the prox ops flying as well," astronaut Dan Burbank replied from mission control. "It's great to be back with the telescope."
"Thank you, Houston, appreciate the support getting us here," Altman said.
Added lead spacewalker and self-described "Hubble hugger" John Grunsfeld: "We're very excited up here, I can tell you."
The only problems during Wednesday's approach was a glitch with a communications unit aboard Atlantis designed to relay commands to the telescope from Hubble engineers on the ground. As it turned out, the equipment was working properly, but the engineers were attempting to send commands at a higher-than-allowed data rate. The commands were sent through a NASA satellite instead and the astronauts easily compensated for a minor delay that resulted in a slight misalignment between the two spacecraft.
After confirming final commands had, in fact, reached the telescope, McArthur was cleared to mount Hubble on a rotating service platform at the back of Atlantis' payload bay. Once locked in place, the astronauts carried out a detailed photo survey to document the condition of Hubble's protective insulation and to look for signs of impact damage from micrometeoroids and space debris.
An electrical cable in the servicing platform was remotely extended and plugged into a receptacle at the base of the telescope to provide shuttle power for the duration of the overhaul.
"We'd like to congratulate you on a great job today with the rendezvous, the grapple and the berth," Burbank radioed at the end of his shift. "It's wonderful to see Hubble safely aboard Atlantis and we're all looking forward very much to a couple of great days of EVA."
"Hey Dan, to you, Tony (Ceccacci, lead flight director), the entire team...we just want to say thanks for all the work that got us to this point," Altman said. "We realize we're just setting the stage for the main activity, doing the repairs on Hubble, but you've got to get past step one to get any further along and having Hubble safely berthed in the bay feels great to us. Thanks to you all, it was a team effort, and we appreciate the help."
Seen for the first time since a pre-Columbia service call in early 2002, the space telescope appeared to be in remarkably good condition given its 19 years in the harsh environment of space, with no immediately obvious problems with its insulation panels or other exterior components.
"Just looking out the window here, and it's an unbelievably beautiful sight, amazingly, the exterior of Hubble, an old man of 19 years in space, still looks in fantastic shape," Grunsfeld radioed.
"As we approached Hubble, the location of the grapple, we're only looking at one side of it and that's the side that never sees the sun," he said. "That's the side that has the least amount of degradation and the side we would expect to be in the best condition. When we go around to the other side, we can logically expect substantially more deterioration."
The first of five back-to-back spacewalks is on tap Thursday, starting around 8:16 a.m. Over the course of the mission, the astronauts plan to install two new science instruments, repair two others, swap out a science data computer and install new batteries, gyroscopes, a refurbished fine guidance sensor and new insulation panels.
The goal is to extend Hubble's life by at least five years.
"We're very much looking forward to getting on with these EVA activities," said Jon Morse, director of astrophysics at NASA headquarters. "I wanted to note that when we first had the image of HST on the big screen in our control room, there were audible gasps of elation that this was truly a wonderful sight seven years or so after the last servicing mission, to see the space telescope...After 19 years, it still looks to be in fantastic shape. So we're really looking forward to tomorrow and getting on with the instrument upgrades and repairs."