May 21, 2009

Atlantis Preparing For Return To Earth

Space Shuttle Atlantis astronauts on Thursday began preparations for a return to Earth after having successfully made crucial upgrades to the 19-year-old Hubble Space Telescope.

Astronauts spent most of Wednesday resting and enjoying downtime after the completion of five tedious spacewalks conducted by four men working in teams to give the telescope a much-needed boost in technology.

However, bad weather near the landing site in Florida has caused Mission Control to instruct the crew to turn off unneeded devices in order to conserve energy in case they are forced to stay in orbit longer than expected.

Shuttle Atlantis is expected to arrive at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at about 10 a.m. ET Friday.

If bad weather prevents the shuttle's planned landing, NASA will have another chance to land Atlantis on Saturday and yet another opportunity on Sunday.

NASA said Atlantis is designed to stay powered through Monday, if necessary.

"From our vantage point, we think it's probably looking very good for entry (into the atmosphere) and we're looking forward to that," Altman said.

Thursday morning, the crew successfully conducted tests of the shuttle's steering thrusters and hydraulic systems to ensure a safe trip back to Earth.

The Atlantis crew was expected to appear before the Senate Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations subcommittee in order to discuss the future of NASA's budget.

After routine inspections on Wednesday, Mission Control reported that the shuttle's heat shield was safe to proceed with landing.

The crew also got a call from President Barack Obama on Wednesday evening.

"I'm hoping you guys recognize how important your mission is to the world as well as to this country," said Obama.

"I can assure you it's a high priority of mine to restore that sense of wonder that space can provide and to make sure we have a strong sense of mission, not just within NASA but for the country as a whole."

Hubble was launched by shuttle Discovery in 1990. NASA believes the new upgrades will allow Hubble to continue operations for at least five years. Meanwhile, its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope is under development.

"You have left Hubble much better than you found it, so now it is time to think about heading home," Mission Control told the crew. "We are all looking forward to seeing you back here on Earth."

Atlantis launched from Kennedy Space Center at 1401 EDT on May 11.

The STS-125 mission marks the space agency's fifth and final mission to connect with Hubble. After 2020, NASA plans to send a robotic craft to carry the telescope back to Earth where it will be dropped into the ocean.


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