Two space shuttles sitting on the pad at the same time is a rare sight. But the reason behind this picture is the stuff of summer blockbusters.
Sometime tomorrow afternoon, the shuttle Atlantis will lift off on the last mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. This is a mission that was actually taken off the flight schedule after Columbia tragedy because it was deemed too risky.
Every shuttle mission since Columbia has been to the International Space Station. The shuttle always rotates in front of a view port before docking and high resolution pictures are taken of the heat shield tiles and leading edges to inspect for damage.
If the shuttle were damaged and unable to survive reentry, the shuttle crew could just camp out in the ISS, for months if necessary, until a ship could be launched to bring them back.
The HST orbits the Earth about 100 miles higher than the International Space Station. The space shuttles do not have enough fuel on board for the change in orbit that would be necessary to get to the ISS from the HST. If the shuttle sustained damage during lift off and were unable to come home, they would be stranded in space. Consumables such as food and breathable air would be gone in a matter of days. A couple of weeks at most.
That's where the second shuttle, Endeavour comes in. Should the worst happen, Endeavour would be launched in a matter of days to rendezvous with Atlantis. The last time the United States has had two manned space craft flying in close formation was during the Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 missions in 1965.
But during those missions, all they did was rendezvous, maneuver around each other, take some pictures, and go their separate ways.
This is very, very different.
As I understand it, the plan would be for Endeavour to come close enough to Atlantis that Endeavor could reach out with its robotic arm and latch onto Atlantis. At this point they would be facing each other cargo bay to cargo bay.
A tether would be strung between the two shuttles. Over the course of 2-3 days, using extra spacesuits carried up by Endeavour, the Atlantis astronauts would pull themselves, hand over hand, 350 miles up, over to Endeavour.
Before leaving the Atlantis, the commander would configure the flight deck so that it could be controlled from the ground.
After the Atlantis astronauts were safely aboard the Endeavour, ground controllers would put the Atlantis on a de-orbit burn that would destroy the Atlantis over the ocean.
I hope it doesn't come to that. But if it does, it will be high drama that will capture the world's attention, with a guarantee of a big budget movie to follow.