KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Technicians on Thursday loaded the $1.5-billion Hubble Space Telescope aboard the shuttle Discovery in a major step toward putting the most expensive civilian satellite ever built into orbit in two weeks.
The delicate six-hour procedure began two days late because of work to capture or kill dozens of tiny "midges"--small flies that look like tiny mosquitoes--that infiltrated the telescope's ultra-clean launching pad storage room earlier this week.
Engineers concerned about the remote possibility of contamination did not remove two giant plastic bags protecting the telescope until after the bugs were eradicated.
Technicians planned to work overnight Thursday hooking up electrical cables before conducting a test to make sure that power and computer commands can travel to and from the telescope.
The telescope was taken to launching pad 39B on Sunday, a day ahead of schedule, and, despite the delay in installation, NASA officials said Discovery and its four-man, one-woman crew remained on track for liftoff around April 12.
Because preparations for the launching have proceeded so smoothly, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is leaning toward moving the flight ahead two days, to April 10. But sources said the agency may stick to the original date because of "political" considerations, including logistics for VIPs and appearances by top NASA officials before Congress.
An official launching date will be announced Saturday at the end of a two-day flight readiness review.
The Hubble Space Telescope, operating 380 miles above Earth's atmosphere, is expected to revolutionize optical astronomy, allowing scientists to see farther into the universe than ever before and with 10 times the clarity of ground-based instruments.