Today, seven astronauts left Earth in one last attempt to save the Hubble Space Telescope. At nineteen years old, Hubble is aging and in need of major repairs. It's also dying a slow death -- at some point around 2015, Hubble's electrical system will fail for good, and then we'll finally have to let go. Today the New York Times has an article about the mission, and the various contingency plans that have been laid in case of (another) space shuttle disaster. The article explains the poignant reality of repairing the Hubble -- we need the space shuttle to get there, and the shuttles are all themselves reaching the end of their useful lives. Here's a snippet:
So if it is the beginning of the last act for the Hubble, the flight Monday also marks the beginning of the end for the space shuttle, whose greatest legacy might very well be the role it played in the repair and maintenance of the Hubble, what Commander Altman recently called "an incredible example of how humans and machines can work together." Dr. Grunsfeld, who has earned the sobriquet of "Hubble repairman" for his previous exploits in space with the telescope, said: "The only reason Hubble works is because we have a space shuttle. And of all things we do, I think Hubble is probably the best thing we use it for." As Mario Livio, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, put it, "It's not just a telescope, it's the people's telescope."
For lots of great Hubble photos, check out Boston's Big Picture blog from December: Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar 2008. For more on the telescope's history, see Wikipedia's excellent Hubble Space Telescope article.