CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Piloted by University of Washington graduate Greg Johnson, Space Shuttle Atlantis headed into space Monday morning for one last flight to the Hubble Space Telescope, an extraordinarily ambitious mission to upgrade the telescope.
The six men and one woman who will attempt the complicated, riskier than usual job shouted, waved and raised their fists as they headed out to the pad, eager to get going after waiting seven months to fly.
About 30,000 people jammed Kennedy Space Center, all of them gazing up as Atlantis headed into the sky. Scientists hugged one another and posed for pictures.
"We have 60 years of Hubble between us," said Ed Weiler, NASA's science mission chief, his arm around senior project scientist David Leckrone. "It's bittersweet ... I know this one is the last one. On the other hand, I know that Hubble is going to be better than ever once the astronauts do their thing."
Leckrone was also wistful: "It's the end of the era of Hubble servicing."
The 19-year-old Hubble, last visited by astronauts seven years ago, is way overdue for a tune-up.
Its final repair was canceled after the Columbia disaster. NASA's then-administrator ruling that it was too dangerous and too far from the international space station, leaving astronauts nowhere to seek shelter if a shuttle was damaged.
But years later, with the storied telescope now desperately in need of repair, NASA has a plan.
"You'd have that extremely unlikely case where we might need to have somebody come up and get us, and that is set," said Scott Altman, STS 125 Commander.
And so with the space shuttle Endeavour and a rescue crew at the ready, Atlantis is all set to fly on what some say could be the most challenging mission ever. Over 11 days and five spacewalks, astronauts will be tasked with restoring Hubble, a high flying fix that leaves scientists downright giddy.
"The grand finale of the Hubble symphony, everything we have done up to this point has been in preparation for these final five years where Hubble is at its peak of capability. There is no area of modern astronomical research that has not been profoundly affected and changed by Hubble," said David Leckrone, Hubble Program Scientist.
Over the last 19 years, the iconic telescope has given us clues into the creation of the universe, found distant planets, and simply amazed us with breathtaking photos.
Another thing that makes this mission so difficult is that some of the parts that they'll be servicing on Hubble really weren't designed to be fixed in space, so Atlantis will be carrying more than 100 new tools designed specifically for this mission, as well as a cargo bay full of spare parts.
One of the two new instruments headed for Hubble is a camera developed by a team of scientists that includes UW astronomy Professor Bruce Balick.
The new camera will help scientists study how stars and planets form, evolve and die. The upgrade and maintenance will add five to 10 years to the life of the 19-year-old Hubble telescope.
The new cameras should enable the observatory to peer deeper into the cosmos and collect an unprecedented amount of data.
"I personally believe the stakes for science are very high," Leckrone said.
Atlantis will be flying in an unusually high orbit for a space shuttle. Space is more strewn with satellite and rocket parts there, and the odds of a catastrophic strike are greater. In addition, there's always the chance the shuttle could be damaged during liftoff by a piece of fuel-tank insulating foam or other debris, which doomed Columbia in 2003.
The shuttle should arrive at the orbiting observatory Wednesday.
The $1 billion repair job will feature five spacewalks. The astronauts will install new cameras, batteries and gyroscopes, and attempt to fix two broken science instruments.
Another shuttle is on a launch pad and ready to lift off on a rescue mission if Atlantis is seriously damaged during the 11-day flight.
Western Washington connection
Western Washington has several ties to the Atlantis Shuttle Mission which launched into blue skies above the Kennedy Space Center. Beginning with the pilot.
54-year-old Greg C. Johnson is a Seattle native whose parents live in Mukilteo. He attended West Seattle High School and the University of Washington.
In Seattle, the launch got a big round of applause at The Museum of Flight. A crowd gathered to watch Atlantis lift off.
The museum carried the launch live on its big screen. The Keyes family said it was "better than awesome".
"We do model rockets at home. This is the first time the kids have ever gotten to see the big thing go off," said Bruce Keyes.
Captain Johnson is carrying a Museum of Flight logo with him into space. The patch will eventually be on display at the museum.
At Kenmore Air, all TV's were tuned to the flight. Johnson flew sea-planes at Kenmore, where he still has lots of friends.
Johnson was Dennis Norman's flight instructor.
"He would talk between flights when he wasn't flying, and he mentioned he was interested in being an astronaut," said Norman.
Repairing the Hubble telescope will take five spacewalks. The crew will also install a new camera, the "Wide Field Three" - designed by a team of scientists which included UW astronomy professor, Bruce Balick. The new camera can see infrared and ultraviolet parts of the light spectrum, helping us better understand other planets, spiral galaxies, star clusters, dust clouds and cosmic pearls.
"So our camera extends the range of our vision to a broader spectrum of light," enthuses Balick. "Everytime we do that, nature is waiting with surprises!"
Captain Johnson is carrying a Museum of Flight logo with him into space. The patch will eventually be displayed at the museum.
KING 5's Lori Matsukawa contributed to this report.