The crew of the space shuttle Discovery was hurtling through space last night in a do-or-die race to catch up to the Hubble Space Telescope early tomorrow.
If they don't catch it on the first try, their mission to upgrade and service the $2 billion orbiting observatory in a series of four spacewalks, beginning tomorrow, will fail. "We have one shot at rendezvous," said the flight director, Jeff Bantle. If the shuttle is moving as little as 100 feet per second too slowly, "we wouldn't have enough propellant to make that up."
That's because the space telescope is orbiting 368 miles up -- close to the operational limits of Discovery's fuel supply.
Discovery was launched just before 4 a.m. yesterday in a nighttime spectacle of smoke and flame. The liftoff turned a nervous silence into cheers and applause at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, where more than 60 employees, and a few of their children, gathered to watch on a big-screen TV.
"It feels like when your second child is born," said a senior research scientist, Dr. Mario Livio. "You've seen it once, and everything was fine. But you still worry."
The room grew silent again until the shuttle's solid-fuel rocket boosters -- whose failure in 1986 destroyed the shuttle Challenger and killed its crew -- were jettisoned. Relief swept the room, followed by the popping of champagne corks.
During the day yesterday, Discovery rapidly narrowed the gap between itself and Hubble. Rendezvous and capture were expected after midnight tonight .
In the first of four spacewalks, scheduled to start at 11: 21 p.m. tomorrow, astronauts will try to replace two of the shuttle's original scientific instruments with two state-of-the art spectrographs.
As luck would have it, one of the instruments being retired -- the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph (GHRS) -- failed last Thursday night after a short-circuit caused dangerous overheating in its power supply.
Since it's being replaced, NASA hasn't tried to engineer a solution to the problem. Astronomers, however, were congratulating themselves for the decision -- after heated debate -- to replace the GHRS rather than Hubble's Faint Object Camera on this mission.
"It's dumb luck we got it right," said a Hubble project scientist, Dr. David Leckrone.
On the other hand, said Dr. Anne L. Kinney, project scientist for education at the telescope institute, "somebody was saying it shows what a great job NASA is doing in planned obsolescence."
Astronomers hope the new instruments -- the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, and the Near Infrared Camera and Multi Object Spectrometer -- will give them new clues to the origins of planets, stars, galaxies and the universe itself.
The mission's next critical test will come just before 2 a.m. tomorrow when the commander, Kenneth Bowersox, will attempt to maneuver Discovery to within the reach of the shuttle's remote manipulator arm.
Unfortunately for anyone trying to watch on NASA-Select TV, the timing means all four spacewalks and the shuttle's planned landing on Feb. 21 will take place in the wee hours of the night.
Bowersox will take the controls when the shuttle is only 2,400 feet below the space telescope -- less than half a mile.
He was the pilot on the 1993 Hubble repair mission. This one, he said, with its night launch, four spacewalks and night landing, is "the kind of mission every astronaut likes to be on."
But the "best part for me will be the rendezvous," he said. One of his most vivid memories of the 1993 mission is the sight of the observatory floating in space, and glowing with the blue of the Earth's oceans reflected on its silvery skin.
His challenge will be to maneuver the spacecraft to within 35 feet of Hubble without missing it, striking it or allowing any of the shuttle's thruster exhaust gases to sweep over it. The gases could seriously damage the precision coatings on the telescope's mirrors and detectors.
Pub Date: 2/12/97