CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – NASA has chosen May 11 as the launch date for its last repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, not seen up close for seven years.
Space shuttle Atlantis is set to blast off then on the highly awaited 11-day flight, considered one of the most challenging yet.
Senior managers met Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center and concluded that the shuttle and Hubble teams could meet a launch date that was one day earlier than planned. Liftoff had been targeted for May 12, but NASA wanted an extra day to get off the ground before a weeklong military operation gets under way May 14.
Atlantis' crew will conduct five spacewalks to replace and repair science instruments at Hubble, and install new equipment that should keep the orbiting telescope running for another five to 10 years.
The mission had been scheduled for last fall, but a breakdown at the telescope delayed everything for seven months.
Atlantis' seven astronauts will go into quarantine in Houston on Monday, one week before launch as usual. Nothing out of the ordinary is being done with the crew or other critical mission personnel given the outbreak of swine flu, said NASA's space operations chief, Bill Gerstenmaier.
This will be the last time a space shuttle flies somewhere besides the international space station. It also will be the first non-station trip for a shuttle since the last Hubble tuneup in 2002.
"This is a different mission for us than we're used to," Gerstenmaier said at a news conference.
The spacewalks will occur on consecutive days, and the work on Hubble will be "microscopic surgery" compared with the bigger, broader assembly hookups normally taking place at the space station, he noted.
On top of all the Hubble work, the seven astronauts will have to carry out detailed, time-consuming inspections of their spaceship to make sure there is no damage that could endanger them during the ride home. Another shuttle, the Endeavour, is already at NASA's other launch pad and could rush to the rescue if necessary.
A top science programs official at NASA, Michael Luther, called the Hubble mission "hugely important."
Atlantis will carry up more than 22,500 pounds worth of new telescope equipment and tools to put everything in.
Liftoff time will be at 2:01 p.m. EDT. (1801 GMT).
Counting the upcoming Hubble mission, eight and possibly nine shuttle flights remain until the fleet is retired. With the deadline for wrapping all this up looming — by the end of 2010 — NASA is taking the first significant step to initiate the shuttle shutdown.
On Friday, about 160 contractor employees in the shuttle program will be laid off. Between Friday and the end of September, NASA expects to reduce its shuttle work force nationwide by about 900, mostly in manufacturing.
The initial 160 layoffs will be in production, primarily in New Orleans and Utah, where the shuttle fuel tanks and booster rockets are made.