Space shuttle launches on mission to Hubble
The space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from its launch pad on Monday afternoon, bound for the Hubble Space Telescope and a final mission to fix the orbiting observatory.
With clear skies and no technical delays, the shuttle blasted off on time at 2:01 p.m. ET from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
It is expected to arrive at the 19-year-old space telescope on Wednesday, where the seven-person shuttle crew hopes to begin a series of repairs, replacing batteries, gyroscopes, cameras and fixing other equipment.
NASA hopes the mission will keep Hubble running another five to 10 years.
Atlantis and its seven-person crew will be the fifth shuttle and crew to visit the telescope on a repair mission, and the first since the 2003 Columbia disaster, when seven astronauts died as the shuttle burned up during re-entry into the atmosphere.
The fifth and final Hubble mission was originally scrapped after Columbia, but in 2006 NASA administrator Michael Griffin reversed the decision and ordered the repair. Since then, however, the mission has been pushed back a number of times, as completing the International Space Station took priority.
The mission will also be historic for Atlantis, as it takes its final scheduled flight.
The U.S. plans to retire its fleet of space shuttles in 2010, after repairs to the space station are completed, and believes it can rely on Endeavour and Discovery to complete the remaining space station missions.
NASA is shelving the shuttle program to make way for future missions to the moon and to Mars.