CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Atlantis' astronauts reached out and grabbed the Hubble Space Telescope on Wednesday, setting the stage for five days of treacherous spacewalking repairs in a lofty orbit littered with space junk.
It was the first time anyone had seen the orbiting observatory up close in seven years.
"It's an unbelievably beautiful sight," reported astronaut John Grunsfeld, the telescope's chief repairman. "Amazingly, the exterior of Hubble, an old man of 19 years in space, still looks in fantastic shape."
Shuttle robot arm operator Megan McArthur used the 50-foot boom to seize the school bus-sized telescope as the two spacecraft sailed 350 miles above Australia. Then she gently lowered the observatory into Atlantis' payload bay.
"It's great to be back with the telescope," said Mission Control.
The astronauts and flight controllers quickly turned their attention to the upcoming repair work, some of which has never before been attempted, once the telescope was safely in hand and launch debris concerns were put to rest.
Late Tuesday, the astronauts learned the ugly stretch of nicks on Atlantis' thermal tiles were not considered serious, and no further inspections were needed. NASA is continuing to prep another shuttle, though, just in case a piece of space junk hits the shuttle during the mission.
Hubble's unusually high orbit is strewn with smashed satellite pieces and other debris that could pierce the shuttle or suit of a spacewalking astronaut.
Going into the mission, Hubble scientists and managers warned that Hubble might look a little ragged because it hasn't had a tuneup since 2002. But initial observations showed nothing major.
Beginning Thursday, two teams of spacewalking astronauts - two men per team - will take turns venturing outside to replace Hubble's batteries and gyroscopes, and an old camera and pointing mechanism. They also will install fresh thermal covers on the telescope and a new science data-control unit - the original conked out last September and, although revived, delayed the shuttle flight by seven months.
The space repairmen also will go into the guts of two broken science instruments and attempt to fix the fried electronics. Astronauts have never attempted anything like this before at Hubble.
"Everybody's very excited up here, I can tell you," said Grunsfeld, who was making his third visit to Hubble.
This is the fifth and final flight to Hubble, costing NASA just over $1 billion. The space agency hopes to get another five to 10 years of dazzling views of the cosmos, with all the planned upgrades, which should leave the observatory more powerful than ever.
The mission almost didn't happen.
A year after the 2003 Columbia tragedy, NASA canceled the repair effort, saying it was too dangerous. The astronauts would not have anywhere to seek shelter because the international space station is in a different, inaccessible orbit.
But a new NASA regime reinstated the flight in 2006 after shuttle repair techniques were developed and tested in orbit. A plan also was put in place to have a rescue shuttle on the launch pad to blast off within days for a rescue.
That shuttle, the Endeavour, will remain on standby until Atlantis and its crew of seven head back to Earth late next week.
As for the nicks on Atlantis, they stretch over 21 inches on the right wing, on the forward edge where it joins with the fuselage. The astronauts discovered the damage Tuesday while inspecting their ship.
The nicks are shallow and embedded in thick thermal tiles, in a location that is not particularly vulnerable during re-entry at flight's end. Engineers believe those scrapes were caused by debris that came off the fuel tank 1 1/2 minutes after liftoff Monday.
Columbia's damage at launch was considerably more severe - a plate-size hole in the most sensitive part of the left wing. NASA did not pursue the matter and was unaware of the extent of the damage until the shuttle was returning home. All seven astronauts were killed.
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