Bad weather delays shuttle landing

May 22, 2009 8:11:25 AM PDT
Thunderstorms prevented space shuttle Atlantis and its crew from landing Friday, leaving them to circle the Earth hoping the weather would improve by the following day. [FULL COVERAGE: NASA and space shuttle coverage]

The news came as no surprise to the seven astronauts, who are wrapping up a successful mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. For days, the weather outlook had been grim. By dawn, all the forecasts proved to be true and there was no hope of improvement.

"Appreciate your patience," Mission Control said. "We don't see any value in waiting two or three hours, so we're going to wave off for the day."

"We know you looked at it hard," replied commander Scott Altman. "We appreciate you making the call early and understand."

NASA is now aiming to bring Atlantis back on Saturday morning after 12 days of flight, if not at Kennedy Space Center than possibly at the backup landing site in Southern California. The shuttle has enough supplies to stay up until Monday.

Space agency officials prefer a Florida touchdown because of the time and money -- about $1.8 million -- it takes to haul a shuttle across the country atop a modified jumbo jet.

Atlantis blasted off May 11 on NASA's last trip to Hubble. The astronauts carried out five back-to-back spacewalks to fix and upgrade the 19-year-old observatory, now considered better than ever.

The repairs added five to 10 years to Hubble's working lifetime. Scientists hope to begin beaming back the results by early September.

One of the Hubble cameras that was replaced is returning to Earth aboard Atlantis so it can be put on display at the Smithsonian Institution. A more powerful and sophisticated wide-field camera took its place.

The six men and one woman aboard Atlantis were the last humans to set eyes on Hubble up close. NASA plans no more satellite-servicing missions of this type, with the space telescope or anything else. That's because the shuttle is being retired next year. The replacement craft will essentially be a capsule to ferry astronauts back and forth to the international space station and, ultimately, the moon.

NASA considered this fifth and final Hubble repair mission so dangerous that, in 2004, a year after the Columbia tragedy, it was canceled. The space agency reinstated it two years later after putting a potential rescue mission in place and developing repair methods for astronauts in orbit.

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