Storms Threaten Shuttle Landing
With rain and thunderstorms forecast for Atlantis' scheduled Kennedy Space Center landing May 22, the Atlantis crew begins preparations for an alternative landing in Southern California May 23 or May 24.Bad weather may delay the space shuttle Atlantis' return from its successful trip to repair and update the Hubble Space Telescope. As thunderstorms raked the Kennedy Space Center May 21, NASA officials warned the May 22 landing date was in doubt.
NASA said the shuttle has two windows of opportunity for the landing May 22, but the continued threat of foul weather may force the space agency to switch to Southern California May 23 or May 24 as an alternative landing site. The crew's air supply will be exhausted by May 25.
As the shuttle passed over Florida May 21, Atlantis Commander Scott Altman radioed to ground command, "We flew over today, saw it looked kind of nasty at the moment, but saw some clearing behind it - maybe. As long as you think there's a chance, we'll be willing to do whatever it takes."
NASA called the chances of a landing at the Kennedy Space Center "iffy. We expect it's going to improve over the next couple of days, but again we'll just have to wait and see." The weather forecast for the landing calls for mostly cloudy conditions with numerous showers and isolated thunderstorms.
With the odds for the alternative California landing increasing by the hour, the shuttle began to conserve power to remain aloft until Monday if necessary, but the May 22 landing efforts will be solely focused on Florida. Altman and shuttle pilot Gregory H. Johnson practiced the landing on a computer simulator.
In between these simulations and other landing preparations, the crew found time for a congressional briefing via a video link to gushing lawmakers. "When we talk about the Hubble and giving it essentially a new life and a new way of going and seeing the universe, you've touched our hearts and you've also made history," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who is widely credited with helping revive the Hubble mission.
The trip to Hubble was originally scheduled for 2004 but after the 2003 Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts, NASA canceled the mission until greater safety measures could be insured for future shuttle slights. Mikulski became a congressional champion for the program and in 2006, NASA cleared the mission to Hubble, the last manned space flight to the telescope.
Arriving at Hubble May 13 , the crew executed five spacewalks to install a new wide-field camera, replace Hubble's six gyroscopes and install a new Science Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit, the computer that sends commands to Hubble's scientific instruments and formats scientific data for transmission to Earth.
In addition, the makeover for the 19-year-old Hubble included new battery packs, a new power supply circuit board and a Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, an instrument that breaks light into component colors, revealing information about an object emitting light.
After departing the Hubble May 22, the seven crew members received a congratulatory call from President Obama.
"Like a lot of Americans, I've been watching with amazement the gorgeous images that you've been sending back," Obama said.