for National Geographic News
The crew recounted the mission's unexpected obstacles, advocated for human exploration of space, and turned their eyes to new frontiers—before they'd even returned to Earth.
"In human space flight, as much as we love lower-Earth orbit, it's time to leave lower-Earth orbit and go out and explore the cosmos," veteran spacewalker John Grunsfeld said.
Hugs for Hubble
Grunsfeld and fellow crew member Andrew Feustel, who was on his first space mission, were the last humans to work directly on the orbiting observatory. No more manned servicing missions are scheduled or likely.
"We both gave Hubble one last hug before coming inside," Grunsfeld said. "We knew that [crew member Megan McArthur] was going to be the one to hold Hubble the last time and send it on its way."
Operating a robotic arm from inside the shuttle, McArthur had let go of the satellite on Monday morning, and Atlantis slowly pulled away (see video below).
The mission successfully installed two new science tools, fixed two ailing ones, and replaced batteries and gyrators. But there were definitely hiccups along the way.
For instance, veteran astronaut Michael Massimino struggled to remove the last of 117 screws on one of the science instruments' handrails during a repair—the screw that had always been the easiest during his practice sessions on Earth, he said.
"What was really most challenging for me was not to give up hope that we could do it," Massimino said.
Humans vs. Robots
Grunsfeld said such incidents demonstrated "the extreme utility of having people working in space and accomplishing things that are different than what was expected."
His comments are an indirect response to calls to replace expensive and dangerous manned missions and spacewalks with robotic missions.
"As we push further out, from lower orbit to the moon, Mars, and beyond, we're going to have to do this kind of work every single day," he said.
Not before some hard-earned rest, however.
"We've been training for this flight for a couple years now," McArthur said. "We all feel pretty good about what's been accomplished, but we're also looking forward to taking a break."
The seven-member crew is also looking forward to a call this afternoon from U.S. President Barack Obama—and to returning to Earth on Friday, when the predicted weather conditions should provide for a smooth landing.
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