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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Hubble Space Telescope hasn't had any visitors in over seven years.

Unidentified Man: And liftoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis on a final visit to enhance the vision of Hubble.

SIEGEL: Now, Atlantis is on its way to give Hubble one last tune-up. The repair mission is bittersweet. It marks the beginning of the end for the famous space telescope, as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce explains.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: The science community has been waiting for this mission for a long time. It was originally planned for 2004, but in 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its return to Earth, killing the astronauts on board.

Mr. DAVID LECKRONE (Senior Project Scientist for Hubble, Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA): We were mourning, but then beyond mourning, looking ahead, what did that mean for the future of Hubble and our servicing mission? We figured, well, it would cause a two or three-year postponement, probably.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: David Leckrone is a senior scientist at NASA for the Hubble project. He says instead of a delay, this repair mission was canceled.

Mr. LECKRONE: To be told, you know, by Administrator O'Keefe that he didn't think it was safe enough to do this mission, and he canceled it, was about the most devastating day I've ever had in my life.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hubble is possibly the most famous science instrument ever. It was launched 19 years ago and has transformed our view of the universe. It's been repaired in orbit four times before, so when the fifth visit was canceled, scientists hated to think of it slowly going silent in the cold, harsh environment of space.

A new NASA administrator eventually gave the plan the green light but only with additional safety measures, like a second rescue shuttle on the launch pad in case of trouble. Leckrone says he went from abject melancholy to extreme excitement.

Mr. LECKRONE: You know, the adrenaline is pumping far higher than it probably should be right now.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says even after a long time without maintenance, Hubble is still doing good science, but some instruments are partially broken.

Mr. LECKRONE: I liken this to the situation of a champion athlete who is playing hurt, still doing very well, but now, by golly, it's time to go off, get our surgery and get back to 100 percent.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Better than 100 percent, actually. Astronauts will go on five space walks to install new instruments, repair two old ones and replace key hardware like batteries. If all goes well, the telescope will be more powerful than it's ever been. For at least another five years, it will gaze out past our galaxy. No one knows exactly how long it can keep going, but there will be no more repairs.

Ed Weiler is head of Science Missions at NASA.

Doctor EDWARD WEILER (Head of Science Mission Directorate, NASA): We are not building new gyros. We are not building new reaction wheels. We are not building spare instruments. Nothing is being built for further servicing because to spend money on that would mean we wouldn't be able to build the next generation telescopes.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: For example, NASA is currently building the James Webb Space Telescope. It will go way out into space, a million miles away from Earth.

Mr. WEILER: So at some point, you, as hard as it is for somebody like me who's worked on Hubble for 31 years to say that, you know, you've got to let go, it's time to let go. Not now, not three years from now, hopefully not five years from now, maybe seven or eight or nine years from now.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Before the launch of Atlantis, NASA held a press conference with the astronauts going to Hubble. Three of them have come face-to-face with the big, shiny telescope before, including astrophysicist John Grunsfeld.

Mr. JOHN GRUNSFELD (Astronaut): Every astronaut who climbs around the telescope leaves their mark. Even just putting your hand on the telescope affects the surface coating just a little bit, and so you can see handprints and things like that. And so it's clear that people have been working on this telescope.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He and the other astronauts know it's special to be the last repair crew.

Mike Massimino will also be doing space walks. He recently saw a friend who's worked on the Hubble project for a long time.

Mr. MIKE MASSIMINO (Astronaut): And so he said, make sure, your last time on that telescope, you give it a pat for me. And so I'm going to give it a pat for Ron(ph) and for everyone else that's worked on this great machine over the years. So I hope that that's going to be in my mind as I'm letting go of the telescope for the last time, just get my one last - my one last handshake with it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The astronauts will spend about a week with Hubble and then say goodbye.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

NORRIS: At npr.org, you can find a Hubble show and tell. Astronomers pick out their favorite images from the space telescope.

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