CAPE CANAVERAL — Hubble's handymen are on their way.
Space Shuttle Atlantis, on NASA's final mission to extend the life of a space telescope that revolutionized man's understanding of the universe, began its 11-day voyage punctually at 2:01 p.m. Monday, riding a torrent of flame and thunder into a blue sky above Kennedy Space Center.
Led by commander Scott Altman, the crew of six men and a woman, four of whom are making their first shuttle flight, carry new tools and spare parts astronomers hope can coax at least another five years of invaluable gazing into space. Hubble project scientist David Leckrone says the next five years are the "grand finale of the Hubble symphony."
If so, Hubble will outlast the program that extended its viability. Shuttle flights are to cease in 2010, and man's presence in space remains a source of debate. Sen. Bill Nelson, who has flown on the shuttle, said Monday that space programs are important "because by nature we are explorers," while pragmatically stressing their economic impact on Florida.
This mission has taken on a modern feel even as the shuttle program winds down a career that began with Columbia on April 12, 1981. Mission specialist Michael Massimino has been tweeting to more than 100,000 followers for weeks and promised on one of his last pre-launch dispatches to begin anew once in orbit.
Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator of science mission directorate, called the challenge of repairing all of Hubble's maladies a little dicey.
Among the repairs to be done: installing a new wide-field camera and a spectograph, designed to help scientists study the formation of planets and evolution of galaxies. The repairs will involve removing more than 100 tiny screws from a part that's not designed to be repaired.
In case a new problem arises, shuttle Endeavour is waiting on Pad 39B to mount a rescue mission. That shuttle, scheduled to visit the International Space Station on June 13, would need a week of preparation to launch.
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