The next day, flight day five, the Atlantis crew uses Endeavour’s robot arm to check the condition of the rescue vehicle’s thermal protection system to ensure a safe reentry. The shuttle comes home on the eighth day of the mission, with Atlantis’ crew seated in the (now crowded) middeck.
“The rescue is well planned, and it’s something that can be done,” says NASA spokesman James Hartsfield. “But we think the other safety precautions we have in place will preclude us from ever having to do it.”
Veteran spacewalker Greg Harbaugh, who served on a National Academy of Sciences panel that studied the risks and rewards of another Hubble servicing mission, also is confident the rescue could succeed. “I have absolute faith they can do this,” says Harbaugh, who left NASA in 2001 after 23 years and now heads the Sigma Chi Foundation in Evanston, Illinois. “I’d volunteer to fly that mission if they’d let me.”
Harbaugh says he was “an early and staunch advocate” of having astronauts work on Hubble one last time. Trying to do the job with robots, as former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe proposed, “would be ludicrous,” Harbaugh says, and the National Academy of Sciences agreed. “I’m very grateful to see this [Hubble servicing] mission come off. It was very uncertain for a long period of time, and it took a lot of hard work and arm wrestling to pull it off.”
Of course, should STS-400 be called into action, the effect on NASA would be dramatic, he says. “Whether it’s the loss of both crews or the loss of one shuttle, that’s the end of the shuttle. That’s the last time the shuttle flies.”