Astronauts prep for repairs on Discovery

After initial uneasiness, crew confident task can be done without risk to ship

August 03, 2005|By Robyn Shelton | Robyn Shelton,ORLANDO SENTINEL

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Discovery's astronauts were to make emergency repairs today to the fragile underside of the shuttle, removing dangling pieces of fabric that could pose a danger on its return to Earth.

During the spacewalk, astronaut Steve Robinson will try to pull the fabric out by hand. If that fails, he'll use a makeshift hacksaw fashioned out of items found aboard Discovery - a blade, plastic ties, Velcro and duct tape.

As a last resort, if the saw doesn't work, he'll use scissors.

The crew took a half-day off yesterday to rest and to review plans for the spacewalk, which was to begin shortly after 5 a.m. They also got a call from President Bush, who thanked them for being "risk takers for the sake of exploration."

"I know you've got very important work to do ahead of you, and we look forward to seeing a successful completion of this mission," Bush said from the White House. "Obviously, as you prepare to come back, a lot of Americans will be praying for a safe return."

Discovery's mission is the first since seven astronauts were killed aboard Columbia in 2003 when the shuttle broke apart on its return to Earth because of damage to its wing.

As a result of the disaster, NASA has used laser imagery, photography and videos to study the condition of Discovery's exterior since it safely reached orbit last week and later docked at the International Space Station.

The reviews detected the two dangling pieces of ceramic fabric, called gap fillers, protruding about an inch. Engineers worry the fabric could trigger extra heating on the spaceship as it re-enters the atmosphere.

Members of the shuttle crew admitted yesterday during interviews that they initially felt uneasy about a spacewalk near the ship's belly, which is covered in fragile tiles that could be chipped inadvertently by a heavily suited astronaut.

But, after learning more about the walk, the crew members said it can be done without risk to their ship.

"The tiles, as we know, are fragile and a [spacewalking] crew member out there is a pretty large mass," Robinson said. "I'll have to be very, very careful, but the task is extremely simple, and we predict it won't be too complex."

Robinson will be maneuvered near the trouble spots on the end of the station's robot arm.

Also yesterday, NASA began examining the potential risks of a loose insulating blanket near Discovery's cockpit. Deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said it's possible that nothing will need to be done about the blanket, but engineers need to make certain it won't be a problem.

Additionally, the space agency is looking at whether a change in the type of foam used to build a ramp on Discovery's external fuel tank might have contributed to a 0.9-pound chunk of the ramp breaking off during launch. NASA spokeswoman June Malone said the new foam is one of many things under investigation.

"You always look at things that are different, things that are changed, so it would be natural to say that it's one of the things that will be looked at, but I don't want to jump to any conclusions," she said.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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