Welcome Back, Old Friend.

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This morning, at 4:01am Australian Eastern Standard time the Shuttle Mission STS-125 blasted off on what is to be the last visit a human will ever make to the space telescope, Hubble. I’ll admit watching the lift off today left me a little teary eyed, as have many launches before. There’s one person though who I’m sure will be far more eager to see Hubble again then anyone else, astronaut Mike Massimino:

“I do actually get a chance to touch the Hubble and I can hug it when I get up there,” Massimino told SPACE.com in a phone interview. “Yeah, the Hubble is great.”

Massimino and the other members of the shuttle Atlantis’s STS-125 crew, led by commander Scott Altman, are due to lift off May 12. The astronauts plan an 11-day mission packed with five spacewalks to repair hardware and install equipment such as a new camera, gyroscopes and batteries. The upgrades should extend the observatory’s lifespan through at least 2013.

For Massimino, revisiting the telescope will be a trip down memory lane.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing Hubble again,” he said. “I saw it seven years ago. I think it’s going to be really cool and I think it’s going to bring back a lot of memories, and remind me of emotions I had during the last flight that I forgot about or haven’t thought about in a long time.”

Reading this article last month really brought this mission home for me. Just imagining going up there once and seeing this impressive telescope back dropped by our beautiful blue marble of a planet would be enough for anyone. Going up a second time would be like going home to visit your old friends, something sure to stir the emotions and tug at the heart strings. Truly the astronauts on this mission are some of the most fortunate people, and I wish them as safe journey.

Hubble is about to receive 7 astronauts who will perform an intensive 11 day mission. This mission includes 5 intensive 6.5 hour back to back space walks as well as the routine of ensuring that the shuttle is capable of landing back on earth without incident. This is a routine procedure since the Columbia disaster back in 2003 and is the cause for one of the most amazing plans that NASA has put into place.

Current NASA policy dictates that should the shuttle suffer significant damage before it returns to earth, either by debris or otherwise, it must have a safe haven that it can go to whilst a rescue mission is prepared using another shuttle. Since the typical Shuttle mission is to the International Space Station this usually isn’t a problem, as the station can cater with the extended load for a moderate amount of time. Worst comes to worst they can always shuffle 3 of them off in the Soyuz life boat in order to reduce the load. Due to the high orbit required to get to Hubble (559KM above earth, the ISS is only 347KM) and the different orbital inclination (28.5 to 51.6 degrees) the energy required to perform such a manoeuvre, called a plane or orbtial inclination change, is extremely prohibitive. Therefore, they have a backup plan unlike anywhere else:

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Should Atlantis not be able to safely return to earth Endeavour will be launched in order to rescue them. The mission itself is no small feat either, with a tricky set of manevours planned in order to get all the astronauts across safely. Whilst I don’t wish any harm on the astronauts I’d love to see this plan put into action, as it would be a testament to NASA’s prowess when it comes to operating in space.

Whilst this mission doesn’t have as much of a human element as trips to the ISS do it does hit close to home. Once this mission is over the astronauts up there will be the last to see Hubble in the flesh and I’m sure the departure will be a bitter-sweet moment for them, as it will for the rest of us.

Launch photo credit: NASA/Fletcher Hildreth, May 11, 2009

Twin shuttle photo credit: Robert Pearlman/collectSPACE.com

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