Monday, May 11, 2009

Shuttle Launch: Atlantis Set To Blast Off As Weather Remains Perfect

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APE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Space shuttle Atlantis was fueled Monday for one last flight to the Hubble Space Telescope, an extraordinarily ambitious repair mission that NASA hopes will lift the celebrated observatory to new scientific heights.

The seven astronauts who will attempt the complicated job were up before dawn, eager to get started after waiting seven months to fly. Their flight was delayed last fall, two weeks before the scheduled launch, after the orbiting telescope failed.

Near perfect weather was forecast for the afternoon liftoff. NASA also was keeping an eye on the weather at the emergency landing strip in Spain, where there was a slight chance of rain.

As the sun rose in a clear sky, NASA finished loading Atlantis' big external fuel tank. No serious problems were being tracked, and the Hubble scientists and managers were euphoric to finally be so close to liftoff.

Nearly 30,000 people were expected at Kennedy Space Center for the launch _ scheduled for just after 2 p.m. EDT _ including space center workers and guests.

The 19-year-old Hubble, last visited by astronauts seven years ago, is way overdue for a tuneup.

On this fifth and final repair mission, Atlantis' crew will replace 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.

They also will remove the command and data-handling unit that failed in September and had to be revived, and put in a 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.

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