The development of the Space Shuttle (STS) and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) were running in parallel during the 1970s and 1980s. Both plans for STS and HST were announced in the late 1960 and both used each other for justification.

HST faced some major financial problems throughout the years for various reasons. One recurring enabler for cost cutting was the Shuttle's alleged ability to bring HST back to Earth to fix problems. This argument was for example used to reduce the number of in-orbit replaceable items/instruments, cut down on testing, etc. See e.g. Robert W. Smith, "The Space Telescope. A study of NASA, science, technology, and politics" for an in-depth description of this part of HST's history.

In the end, they realized that if you wanted to bring back HST back to Earth, you'd need to have a processing facility where the HST could be received, worked on, and prepared for relaunch. Having such a facility on stand-by throughout the envisioned life time of HST was determined to be prohibitively expensive and the whole idea was scrapped. HST's final design considered in-orbit repairs only.

HST was over 11000 kg and contained highly sensitive instruments and a giant mirror. If I recall correctly, it barely fitted inside the payload bay.

From this answer the biggest item brought back by STS was LDEF, which weighed about 9700 kg and was basically a stainless steel passive structure. The other satellites STS brought back were considerably smaller and lighter than HST.

Was the Space Shuttle actually capable of bringing HST back to Earth? More precisely, given that both were designed around the same time, are there requirements for STS's design (that made it into the final design) that account for the required ability to bring HST back?

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    $\begingroup$ The way you have worded the title, it sounded to me (when I read it) that the shuttle tried to carry it back, and you want to know if it succeeded or failed. $\endgroup$
    – CGCampbell
    Feb 14, 2023 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks Ludo; that was a typing error. $\endgroup$ Feb 14, 2023 at 23:38
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    $\begingroup$ Did no-one notice, it would not at all have been necessary to have a processing facility on stand-by? In the unlikely event that the facility was needed, you'd build it to order! Of course if this was a car, a train or even a big expensive plane the cost might be hard to justify and isn't HST rather more important than a car, a train or a big expensive plane? $\endgroup$ Feb 14, 2023 at 23:43
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    $\begingroup$ @RobbieGoodwin The idea was more to regularly bring HST back for refurbishment, upgrades, etc. For example, instead of designing instruments for in-orbit replacement (which requires among others rather complex latches), they would just bring it back and swap instruments on Earth, allowing the instrument design to be simpler (read: cheaper). The same for repairs: instead of very intensive (and expensive) end-to-end testing, they'd go for a simpler test campaign and bring HST back if something failed in orbit. Of course, this hinged on the idea the Shuttle flights would be cheap and frequent... $\endgroup$
    – Ludo
    Feb 15, 2023 at 9:13
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks Ludo, and what part of that detail was included in the Question? $\endgroup$ Feb 21, 2023 at 20:51

1 Answer 1


Yes, prior to the STS-107 failure, the mission was officially scheduled.

It was to be a Columbia mission, STS-144.

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Source: personal notes (from https://space.stackexchange.com/a/18580/6944)

The Japanese Experiment Module was larger than the HST. The elbow camera on the robotic arm had to be shimmed to move it out of the ascent vibrational envelope of the JEM. I don't think that was done for any other payload.

The shuttle landed with the heavy Spacelab several times. https://space.stackexchange.com/a/14011/6944 The Spacelab payload described at that link weighed about what the Hubble did.

Also, the Orbiter had to be able to land with any payload, in case of an ascent abort. Chandra and its booster (STS-93) was twice as heavy as Hubble at almost 50,000 lbs (~22600 kg).

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    $\begingroup$ @Speedphoenix space.stackexchange.com/questions/37508/… $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2023 at 0:37
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    $\begingroup$ Good point about the abort landings, should have thought of that. $\endgroup$
    – Ludo
    Feb 13, 2023 at 5:39
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    $\begingroup$ Interesting point about the abort landings. A lot of jet airplanes routinely take off for long trips with higher total weight than they are rated to land with, so that if they have a problem shortly after takeoff and they don't have to land immediately they will circle around for a while to burn fuel and/or dump fuel in order to get below normal landing weight. Obviously the Shuttle did not have such options. $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2023 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ @manassehkatz-Moving2Codidact What you describe was one of the major problems with the planned Centaur upper stage for the shuttle. It was to be a large liquid fueled stage in the payload bay, and the propellants from it had to be dumped for abort landings. This was highly problematic and was one of the reasons the crew called it the Death Star. $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2023 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ @manassehkatz-Moving2Codidact: Jets effectively have two landing weights: a weight at which they can land without requiring inspections or repairs, and a weight at which they can land without endangering the people on board. They're not allowed to take off about the latter weight, but may take off between those two weights, at the risk of being put out of commission for awhile by a forced emergency landing. $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Feb 15, 2023 at 22:06

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