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Glitches, but Success, in Spacewalk

Completion of crucial maintenance on the space station buoys confidence at NASA for future shuttle flights.

July 11, 2006|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

Two astronauts from the shuttle Discovery completed a nearly seven-hour-long spacewalk Monday, 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 to the station and did maintenance work on a mobile transport system used to move large pieces of equipment and construction material around the outside of the station.

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

"Man, do I feel better," said Rick LaBrode, 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. This spacewalk was especially 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 had been done since the Columbia accident in 2003, which killed all seven astronauts. The scheduled mothballing of the 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."

Assuming 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 plagued by problems that raised doubts among observers about whether NASA could meet its commitment to the space station's construction. This flight, on the other hand, had been nearly flawless, NASA officials said.

Some bits of insulating foam came off on launch, but no more than expected. Safety engineers have cleared the shuttle's heat shield for reentry, 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 reentry.

NASA engineers are considering removing the gap fillers during the third scheduled spacewalk later this week.

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