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Space Shuttle Endeavour On Standby For Atlantis Rescue

April 18, 2009

NASA rolled the space shuttle Endeavour out to a launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday, preparing it for a rescue mission the agency hopes it never has to undertake.

Endeavour is being prepared alongside its sister ship, Atlantis, which is set to lift off May 12 on a final mission to refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope.  Atlantis is on a separate launch pad less than 2 miles away.

NASA wants an Endeavour rescue team at the ready in case they are needed to fly home the Atlantis’ crew, who would be unable to seek refuge in the International Space Station in an emergency.  Endeavour would serve as their lifeboat.

“They are essentially processing the vehicle as if it’s going to launch and then it’s going to sit there on the launch pad in a state of readiness,” a Reuters report quoted NASA spokesman Kyle Herring as saying.

NASA had canceled its final servicing mission to the Hubble after the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy in which a piece of foam insulation fell off the shuttle’s fuel tank during launch.  The debris created a hole in the wing that resulted in the craft’s disintegration upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

The agency had initially decided it could risk losing another shuttle crew due to damage from launch debris. But engineers later redesigned the shuttle fuel tanks to reduce debris, and also implemented post-launch inspections by crews to ensure there was no damage.
They also equipped the International Space Station to serve as a shelter for stranded shuttle crews until rescuers could arrive to transport them home.

However, because Hubble orbits Earth at a different altitude and position than the space station, astronauts sent to the telescope would not be able to reach the station for refuge, and public objections ultimately forced NASA to devise a rescue contingency.

Endeavour would be ready to launch seven days after Atlantis, giving engineers adequate time to assess launch videos and information from an in-flight inspection to determine if Atlantis had sustained damage during liftoff.

If launched, Endeavour would have an empty cargo hold and seven jump seats placed into the crew cabin’s mid-deck — an area that typically seats four astronauts.  

Upon its rendezvous with Atlantis, rescuers would conduct three spacewalks to escort their colleagues from Atlantics to Endeavour.
The shuttles began operating in 1981, and as many as nine more flights are scheduled before they are retired next year. 

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