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Shuttle Endeavour moved to pad for rescue duty

The space shuttle Endeavour was hauled to launch pad 38B early Friday for work to ready the ship for a flight NASA hopes will never happen.

The space shuttle Endeavour was hauled to launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center early Friday for work to prepare the ship for a flight NASA managers hope will never happen: a mission to rescue the astronauts charged with repairing and upgrading the Hubble Space Telescope.

Space shuttle Endeavour is mounted atop pad 39B. William Harwood

The shuttle Atlantis is scheduled for launch May 12 from pad 39A on NASA's fifth and final mission to the space telescope. Because Hubble operates in a different orbit, the Atlantis astronauts would not be able to seek safe haven aboard the International Space Station if any problems develop that might prevent a safe re-entry.

As a result, NASA is processing Endeavour in parallel at nearby pad 39B for a quick-response launch on an emergency rescue mission if all else fails. Dana Hutcherson, the engineer in charge of Endeavour's ground processing, said the shuttle will be ready for launch seven days after Atlantis takes off if a major problem is spotted during initial heat shield inspections.

Assuming no non-repairable problems are found, Endeavour will be released from rescue standby duty and engineers will focus on readying the ship for launch June 13 on a space station assembly mission. Endeavour will be moved to pad 39A for final processing and launch.

NASA's crawler-transporter leaves pad 39B after delivering the space shuttle Endeavour and its mobile launch platform. William Harwood

Pad 39B is being turned over to NASA's Ares 1 rocket program, which is gearing up for its first test flight later this summer or fall. The 330-foot-tall Ares 1 rocket, made up of a five-segment shuttle booster and a hydrogen-fueled upper stage, is being built to launch Orion crew capsules, the spacecraft that eventually will replace the shuttle.

Work to modify pad 39B for the Ares 1 system is well under way, with erection of new lightning towers and the removal of the familiar mast that used to be mounted atop the shuttle's service gantry. NASA is moving Endeavour to pad 39A for its June launch to clear the way for final Ares 1 pad modifications.

Space shuttle Atlantis on pad 39A with shuttle Endeavour in the background on pad 39B. NASA

Engineers plan to haul Atlantis' payload of Hubble science instruments, gyros, batteries and other equipment to pad 39A Saturday--"Family Day" at the Kennedy Space Center--for installation in the ship's cargo bay.

The protective gantries around both shuttles will be left open all day Saturday, giving space center workers, family members and friends a final chance to see two shuttles on their pads at the same time. Some 50,000 visitors are expected.