Atlantis will retrieve the Hubble Space Telescope today to attempt a series of repairs that were never intended to be performed in orbit. We’re talking fasteners, circuit boards, wiring harnesses, that kind of thing—stuff that’s a lot less complicated in a dedicated assembly facility on Earth than it is 350 miles above it.
That orbit is considerably higher than usual missions. When a shuttle docks with the International Space Station, it happens at about 220 miles up, for example. There is a lot more space junk at 350 miles, and for this mission, NASA has calculated a 1-in-229 chance of a significant encounter with such (meaning serious damage, or even a hull breach).
So for the first time ever, NASA not only has a rescue shuttle on the pad, but is prepping it for launch.
Theoretically, Endeavour could rescue a marooned Atlantis crew in a few days. I’ve not encountered a detailed treatment of how that would work, I’m guessing because there would be a lot of scenario-specific constraints, and probably a fair amount of just plain ol’ winging it.
For example, assuming Atlantis was capable of it post-accident, would it drop to a lower orbit for the rescue to avoid unnecessarily endangering Endeavour? I would think so. (The whole thing would be riveting, would it not? But as things would have to go really wrong for it to become reality, I think I won’t wish for it.)
We were always supposed to be able to work on Hubble in orbit, and we have done so several times. With this mission, however, we’re well outside the envisioned limits of such an operation. We’re attempting to “cheat”—to get significantly more life from the instrument than it was ever designed to provide. How can-do is that? How American is that? Oh, very.
Few NASA projects have been as sustainedly cool as Hubble. The Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity are right up there, though, and they’ve benefited from the same kind of thinking. Both of them were supposed to be quiet and still years ago. I just love that a bunch of bright folks have continued to find ways to keep them—and Hubble—going.
Good luck and godspeed, Atlantis.