CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. —
With the successful return home of the space shuttle Discovery June 14, the stage is set for NASA’s next flight: the final shuttle visit to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Discovery’s seven-astronaut crew landed at
11:15 EDT here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center after a successful two-week mission that delivered Japan’s billion-dollar Kibo laboratory to the international space station (ISS).
“It’s great to be here on the runway in sunny Florida,” Discovery commander Mark Kelly said after the smooth landing. “The vehicle’s in good shape, which we always like to see it that way.”
Discovery’s return to Earth clears the way for the planned Oct. 8 launch of its sister ship Atlantis, which is set to fly one last mission to overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope before NASA turns its full attention to completing the space station by 2010 and retiring its three-orbiter fleet.
But first, NASA has to fix blast damage to its prime shuttle launch site – Pad 39A – after Discovery’s liftoff ripped some 5,300 heat-resistant bricks from their concrete moorings at the 1960s-era pad.
NASA has two seaside shuttle launch sites, Pad 39A and Pad 39B, but is converting the latter to host future flights of its new Ares 1 rocket and Orion crew capsule
. However, both pads are required for the Hubble mission since, unlike international space station-bound flights, Atlantis astronauts won’t have the safe haven of the ISS to turn to if their spacecraft is damaged because the space telescope is in a different orbit. Instead, a second shuttle would be ready
at Pad 39B to serve as a rescue ship
Michael Leinbach, NASA’s shuttle launch director, said there is ample time to complete repairs to Pad 39A before late August, when the agency plans to roll Atlantis out to the Pad 39A.
“A lot of folks feel like we have pretty sufficient amount of time available to do a repair and make it flyable again, well in time for the Hubble mission,” Leinbach said. “It’s a significant job, but the team is up to it.”
With nearly four months until the next launch, a gap caused by fuel tank delays, there should be enough time to give shuttle engineers some well-deserved time off, he added.
In the meantime, NASA plans to make the most of the months between now and the next shuttle flight to the space station, a logistics flight currently slated to lift off
Nov. 10 aboard the Endeavour orbiter.
William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator of space operations, said he expects U.S. astronaut Gregory Chamitoff and his two Russian crewmates aboard the station to take advantage of the shuttle lull to perform science in the station’s new Kibo laboratory and Europe’s Columbus lab, which was delivered earlier this year.
arrived at the station
aboard Discovery and replaced U.S. astronaut Garrett Reisman as an Expedition 17 flight engineer.
Built by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Japan’s
Kibo lab is about the size of a large tour bus and the largest module ever launched to the space station. JAXA officials hope to begin the first experiments in the module in August,
space laboratory, which
has been more than 20 years in the making. “I was personally moved that Kibo is now in space,” said JAXA Vice President Kaoru Mamiya, who remembers helping to plan the new laboratory on paper two decades ago. “It was my dream to see Kibo in space and that dream has come true.”
Returning to Earth with Kelly were shuttle pilot Kenneth Ham, mission specialists Karen Nyberg, Ronald Garan, Michael Fossum, Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and Reisman.
Together they performed three spacewalks to maintain the station, test out ways to clean a damaged solar array gear and outfit the new Kibo lab. They also attached Kibo’s rooftop storage module, which a previous crew delivered in to a temporary berth last March.
“I think it is just a start, just a beginning,” said Hoshide before landing. “We learned a lot from this mission, so we’ll just continue to learn more.”
With Kibo’s installation, the space station is about 71 percent complete, has a mass of
and has a living area about the size of the interior of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.
Discovery’s landing marked the end of NASA’s 123rd space shuttle mission and the 26th construction flight to the space station. Discovery made its 35th trip to space. It also was the 10th mission since the 2003 Columbia tragedy.
NASA plans to fly 10 more shuttle flights to complete the space station and overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope before retiring its aging three-orbiter fleet in 2010.
NASA has now flown three shuttle missions in 2008 and the agency hopes to conduct two more.