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Shuttle Begins Repair Mission

By Robert Lee Hotz
Los Angeles Times

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.

Under a waning moon, the space shuttle Endeavour arced into orbit early Thursday on a plume of superheated steam and fire to begin an 11-day effort to retrieve and repair the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope.

As Endeavour's main engines were throttled into silence and its solid rocket boosters tumbled to Earth, shuttle commander Richard Covey peered over the edge of the atmosphere and radioed, "It's a beautiful sunrise."

At same time, from the seaside launch site at the Kennedy Space Center below, Hubble chief scientist Edward J. Weiler watched the 100-ton spacecraft diminish into a distant twinkle in a field of morning stars.

"I think my heart stopped," Weiler said.

It was not the first time Weiler's hopes for the Hubble have ridden into orbit aboard a space shuttle.

Along with hundreds of other scientists, Weiler, who has worked on the project since 1979, cheered the launch of the Hubble telescope three years ago as the dawn of a new age in astronomy, only to discover that, due to a manufacturing defect in its primary mirror, the Hubble could deliver only a fraction of the performance its designers had intended.

As other system failures quickly mounted, the Hubble telescope -- the most sophisticated space-based observatory ever built -- became an orbiting parody of extreme old age.

With flawed optics, it stares at the heavens through blurred eyes. Its solar panels are palsied, quivering each time the satellite swings from darkness into light. With three failed gyroscopes and several broken magnetometers, it is losing its sense of balance. An on-board computer suffers memory lapses.

The seven astronauts aboard Endeavour, the most experienced crew ever assembled for a shuttle flight, will try to refurbish the orbiting observatory, a task NASA officials call the most extensive and most difficult servicing mission ever attempted.

"We are going to repair and bring back to youth, if I may say, an instrument that will allow us to see deep into the past of the universe," said Claude Nicollier, a Swiss astronaut who will operate Endeavour's robot arm. In the coming week his job will be to hold the telescope steady while other crew members carry out repairs.

Once in space Thursday, Endeavour pilot Ken Bowersox wasted no time in starting the two-day orbital ballet that will bring the shuttle into grappling distance of the Hubble by Saturday. The two spacecraft were about 5,529 miles apart by evening Thursday, closing at a rate of 370 miles every orbit.

NASA officials, however, were concerned that the maneuvers could leave the shuttle's fuel supply dangerously low. Endeavour only carries enough fuel for one attempt at a rendezvous.

"We are very tight on fuel and we have to do it right the first time," said shuttle mission director Randy Brinkley. Nicollier is to take a firm hold on the Hubble Saturday. Early Sunday, Endeavour's four other astronauts will begin the first of a record five spacewalks to work on the telescope.

Astronauts Story Musgrave, Kathy Thornton, Jeff Hoffman and Tom Akers are to install $50 million worth of corrective optical devices and an upgraded $101 million wide-field planetary camera. In addition, they plan to attach new power-generating solar panels, backup gyroscopes, a new computer processor and other equipment.

If all goes according to schedule the astronauts will replace the telescope's faulty gyroscopes on Sunday and the quivering solar power arrays on Monday.