Spacewalkers get job done

Despite glitches, work clears way for station construction

July 11, 2006|By JOHN JOHNSON JR. | JOHN JOHNSON JR.,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES -- Two astronauts from the shuttle Discovery completed a nearly seven-hour spacewalk yesterday, installing new equipment and completing crucial maintenance work to the International Space Station that clears the way for NASA to resume construction of the station late this summer.

Astronauts Piers Sellers and Michael E. Fossum attached a heating system pump and did maintenance work on a mobile transport system used to move large equipment and construction materials around the outside of the station.

There were several glitches. The astronauts had trouble with some bolts, and a safety support system came loose, forcing some on-the-spot troubleshooting. NASA managers said each problem was overcome and that neither of the astronauts was ever in serious danger.

"Man, do I feel better," said Rick LaBrode, the space station flight director. "To get [the spacewalk] behind us is a great feeling."

The spacewalk was the second of three scheduled for the 13-day mission. It was important because the transport system must be working in order for construction of the space station to resume.

The station is half-finished. No work has been done since the Columbia accident in 2003, which killed all seven astronauts. The scheduled mothballing of the space shuttle fleet in 2010 is putting pressure on NASA to adopt a brisk construction schedule in order to finish on time.

Discovery's mission is the second of two test flights to see how the extensively redesigned shuttle performs.

Phil Engelauf, a mission operations manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the success of Discovery, so far, is waving "a green flag for us to press ahead."

If the second half of Discovery's mission goes as smoothly as the first, NASA will launch Atlantis in late August, followed by another mission in December.

"We have a huge amount of work coming ahead," Engelauf said.

Last year's first test flight was hindered by problems that raised doubts about whether NASA could meet its commitment. This flight, on the other hand, has been nearly flawless, NASA officials say.

Bits of insulating foam came off on launch, but no more than expected. Safety engineers have cleared the shuttle's heat shield for landing, though some analysts continue to study whether one or two spacers between the craft's insulating tiles are sticking out too much.

The spacers, known as gap fillers, are on the underside of the spacecraft and could cause heating spikes on re-entry.

NASA engineers are considering whether to remove them on the third scheduled spacewalk later this week.

The astronauts got welcome news Sunday when NASA managers cleared Discovery's thermal protective skin as safe for a return to Earth on July 17. Hundreds of images of Discovery were taken during liftoff, during the orbital flight to the space station and before docking with the complex to make sure the shuttle doesn't have any damage of the sort that doomed Columbia in 2003.

John Johnson Jr. writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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