NASA will ship the $1.4 billion Hubble Space Telescope to the Kennedy Space Center aboard a giant C-5A jet transport this summer, a move that will cost $10 million and avoid a long trip by sea from California, officials said Friday.
Jean Olivier, deputy manager of the telescope project at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said the decision was made late Thursday after a thorough analysis of the stresses and strains the telescope will experience during takeoff and landing."We just made the decision," he said by telephone from Huntsville. "We are definitely now going by air."
The giant telescope, the most powerful civilian optical instrument ever built for deployment in space, is scheduled for launch from the shuttle Discovery on Dec. 11, some three years behind schedule because of the 1986 Challenger disaster.
The 43-foot, 25,000-pound telescope, currently housed in a special "clean room" facility at the Lockheed Missiles and Space Co. plant in Sunnyvale, Calif., is considered by many to be the showcase shuttle payload of the decade and one that promises to revolutionize optical astronomy.
NASA originally planned to ship the telescope to the Kennedy Space Center aboard a Military Sealift Command cargo ship that would have sailed from Redwood City, Calif., through the Panama Canal to the east coast of Florida.
But after a detailed engineering study, NASA managers decided to ship the delicate instrument aboard a C-5A transport jet using a special Defense Department canister built for military satellites that is capable of maintaining ultra-pure environmental conditions.
Extreme cleanliness is required to prevent microscopic contamination of the telescope's 94.5-inch mirror, a mirror so finely figured it can detect the light of a firefly from 10,000 miles or a flashlight bulb on the surface of the moon at a distance of 240,000 miles.
Data gathered during C-5A landing tests using a simulated telescope mass convinced NASA that air transport was a safe way to proceed.
"It was becoming intuitively obvious that was a better way to go if they could gain the confidence they wanted there was not any severe vibration or potential damage, " said Kathryn Sullivan, one of five astronauts scheduled to launch the telescope. "We were quite confident the landing tests would show that."
Along with being faster, shipment by air gives NASA more flexibility, Olivier said.
While the telescope currently is scheduled for launch in December, problems readying the shuttle Columbia for blastoff in July on a military flight threaten to rearrange the upcoming flight schedule.