Astronaut Dominic Gorie, who successfully led the crew of mission STS-123 back in March, is assigned to command another mission this year, but, this time, everyone is hoping Gorie stays grounded. Gorie’s next spaceflight would be a mission to rescue the crew of STS-125, going up in October to make extensive repairs and additions to the Hubble Space Telescope. No attempt to reach the Hubble has been made since the tragic demise of the shuttle Columbia in 2003. Following the Columbia disaster, former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe deemed the journey to the Hubble too risky for humans and NASA began working on ways to perform Hubble repair missions using robotics. But, Michael Griffin, current NASA administrator, overturned O’Keefe’s decision and began working on a safer plan for the next astronaut-manned mission to repair the aging telescope.
The reason officials are so worried about the safety of astronauts on a Hubble mission, is that, unlike the space flights to the International Space Station, they would have no place of refuge if their shuttle is irreparably damaged on the way to the Hubble. Stranded astronauts have waited for rescue onboard the ISS for up to 90 days, but the STS-125 crew won’t have that option. So, NASA is pre-planning a rescue mission that, should it be needed, will bring the astronauts home safely and send the damaged shuttle speeding into oblivion, burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. The plan for the rescue mission, STS-400, is nearly as comprehensive as the repair mission. Chuck Shaw, flight director on the Hubble mission and flight manager for the rescue mission recently told Aviation Week & Space Technology Magazine, “We’ve got to effectively plan a ghost flight that we certainly don’t have any intention of having to fly, but you can’t not be ready to fly it.”
When the STS-125 crew takes off from Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39-A in the shuttle Atlantis, the Endeavor will be on standby on launch pad 39-B, where it will stay until Atlantis returns safely to Earth, or it is called upon for the rescue mission. On Flight Day 2, the crew on the Atlantis will perform a detailed inspection of the ship using the video camera on its robotic arm, checking the shuttle’s thermal protection system (TPS). It was damage to the TPS that caused the destruction of the shuttle Columbia, and since then NASA has developed a collection of equipment to repair the TPS if they find damage. However, if ground controllers aren’t satisfied that the repairs will allow the shuttle to return safely, Gorie, a 1990 UTSI graduate, will be called upon to lead the rescue mission. Commander Gorie would be part of a four-man crew following Atlantis’ path to the Hubble to perform an in-orbit rescue, the first of its kind. After lining up underneath the Atlantis, the crew would use Endeavor’s robotic arm to connect to the Atlantis. The seven members of the STS-125 crew would then climb along the arm to the Endeavor for a safe return to Earth.
However, NASA says that, though meticulously planned, the rescue mission will probably not be needed. If all goes well for STS-125, scheduled for launch on Oct. 10, it will be the fifth and last shuttle mission to the Hubble. The mission will require 11 days in space with five days of spacewalks, each six and a half to seven hours long, to complete the required repairs and upgrades. The crew will install new cameras, swap out old batteries, and repair current equipment to give the telescope at least five more years of usefulness, probably more. According to NASA, if successful, the crew of Atlantis will leave Hubble with advanced technology that will improve its discovery power by 10 to 70 times.