Homeward Bound

''Good luck, Mr Hubble,'' came the call from Columbia's flight deck at 10:04 am on 9 March, as seven pairs of eyes - some a little teary - watched their companion of the last week depart to continue its journey of astronomical discovery. Shortly after Currie released the silvery observatory from the RMS, Altman and Carey fired the OMS engines to create a safe separation distance between the two spacecraft.

As the telescope drifted serenely away into the inky blackness, high above the Atlantic Ocean and the French Guadeloupe islands, Capcom Mario Runco - himself a veteran of three spaceflights - was overwhelmed; so much, in fact, that he had donned a black-tie tuxedo for the occasion. Echoing the words of the crew, he wished Hubble well. At the time, it was confidently expected that one further servicing mission in April 2004 should be enough to keep it fully operational until the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) enters service around 2011.

Circumstances in the next year, of course, changed Hubble's prospects quite considerably and by 2004 NASA had already taken the decision not to risk any more Shuttle crews trekking up to the vaunted observatory. In the wake of the STS-107 tragedy, it was decided instead to devote their resources to completing the International Space Station and retiring the three remaining Shuttles by 2010. The abandonment of Hubble has been greeted by strong criticism from Congress, astronomers and the general public across the globe; clearly, the telescope has opened people's eyes and minds to the Universe around them as never before.

At the time of writing, Hubble continues to operate well and should remain to do so for the near future. Yet, judging from past problems with gyroscopes, reaction wheels and the likelihood of increasingly more frequent glitches as the observatory gets older, it is doubtful that it will still be operational in 2011 when JWST enters space. Hubble's eventual demise will probably come as a shower of burning debris over the Indian Ocean and humanity will have lost a vital tool that will be difficult to replace.

On board Columbia for what would be her last fully successful space mission, the astronauts reported on the morning of 11 March that a latch holding one of the telescope's old solar arrays in place had unexpectedly moved slightly in the payload bay. After some analysis, it was determined that the array would pose no safety hazard during re-entry or landing. Fears of problems with the troublesome freon coolant loop as the Shuttle sped back to Earth the following day also proved unfounded and Altman brought Columbia through the pre-dawn darkness onto KSC's runway at 9:32 am. Little did he know that the veteran orbiter had just made her last successful landing.

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