As NASA prepares for its final service call to the Hubble Space Telescope, it’s also preparing for something never attempted in the history of the shuttle program: a rescue operation so dramatic that Hollywood would be hard-pressed to come up with a more outlandish plot.
If the Hubble repair crew due for liftoff on Monday got into the deepest sort of orbital trouble, yet another shuttle would have to be launched into orbit as little as a week later. NASA hasn’t launched two piloted spacecraft so close together in more than 40 years. But that’s just the first act of the drama.
The rescue shuttle, Endeavour, would have to pull within about two dozen yards of the stranded shuttle Atlantis, and then help Atlantis’ crew members make their way across a lifeline to refuge. Then Endeavour, full to capacity, would have to leave Hubble as well as Atlantis behind and return home — but not before Atlantis’ controls are set for a self-destruct sequence.
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The rescue mission, known as STS-400, would be NASA’s last resort for saving the lives of Atlantis’ astronauts in case of emergency. If Atlantis suffers irreparable damage to its thermal protection system — perhaps during ascent, perhaps from a space debris impact, perhaps from other less likely but not impossible hazards — it would no longer be able to return safely to Earth.
Because Atlantis is in an orbit different from that of the international space station, it wouldn’t be able to reach that safe haven, even though the station will periodically zoom below the shuttle. The only hope for survival would be STS-400’s arrival.
STS-400 would be arguably the most perilous journey ever planned for space travelers. And no matter what the outcome, the mission would probably bring the 28-year space shuttle program to an early end.