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NASA upbeat about shuttle mission

Commander Scott Altman, left, and mission specialists John Grunsfeld and Nancy Currie talking to reporters on Saturday.
Commander Scott Altman, left, and mission specialists John Grunsfeld and Nancy Currie talking to reporters on Saturday.  

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Texas (CNN) -- The commander of the space shuttle Columbia said Saturday he's hopeful a blockage in one of the shuttle's two cooling systems won't force NASA to cut short the Hubble Space Telescope repair mission.

"(We're) just hopeful we can square everything away and go on to perform what we came here to space to do," said mission commander Scott Altman on Saturday in an interview with reporters.

The port side freon cooling loop in Columbia's payload bay was sluggish shortly after launch. Ground controllers suspect it's blocked with debris.

The space shuttle Columbia blasted off early Friday on a mission to renovate the Hubble Space Telescope (March 1)

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The managers gave Columbia the go-ahead to stay up Saturday while they reviewed the problem and expressed confidence the shuttle will be allowed to complete its mission. The shuttle is scheduled to catch up with Hubble on Sunday.

"We're very comfortable with how that loop is behaving and how we feel it's going to sustain entry," lead shuttle flight director Bryan Austin said Saturday. "We're moving on to working toward getting ready for rendezvous (with Hubble)."

"I fully expect we'll get the green light to keep on going," he said.

Shuttle managers are expected to decide whether to continue the mission after meeting at midday on Saturday.

Columbia's other cooling system is working fine. Only one system is needed to cool the shuttle's electronics. The cooling system is crucial for the shuttle's re-entry into the atmosphere, when temperatures reach more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

This is not the first time a problem has threatened to terminate a shuttle mission. Several years ago, a fuel cell aboard Columbia died right after the craft went into orbit: The shuttle returned to Earth three days later.

First launched in 1981, Columbia is NASA's oldest operational shuttle. Columbia's maiden flight was in April 1981. The shuttle flew 25 more missions before undergoing a $164 million overhaul following its last flight in November 1999.

Hubble Space Telescope tune-up

Columbia is carrying $172 million in new equipment for Hubble, including new solar wings, a power-control unit, a steering mechanism, a more advanced camera and a system to restart a disabled infrared camera.

The mission calls for the astronauts to install the new equipment in five spacewalks over the 11-day mission, which includes repairs never meant to take place in orbit: replacement of a power-control unit and Hubble's infrared camera repair.

NASA scientists are particularly nervous about the power-control unit repair because the power to the space telescope must be shut off and turned back on -- a sequence never before performed on the telescope.

Hubble already has given scientists an impressive view of the universe. The orbiting observatory has watched a comet break up near the sun, spied the ruins of a stellar explosion 10 billion light years away and investigated the rate that the cosmos expands.

Improvements include installation of the Advanced Camera for Surveys -- a multiple-camera instrument that promises to boost the imaging ability of the bus-sized observatory tenfold. Other new instruments, such as a filter that blocks out bright light, should allow the observatory to improve its structural studies of massive black holes in the far reaches of the universe.

The Hubble Space Telescope, a joint venture of NASA and the European Space Agency, was launched in 1990. Because of a structural defect, it suffered a serious case of blurred vision until visiting shuttle astronauts made repairs in 1993.




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