No spacewalk in the park

May 18, 2009|Robert Block

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. — Astronauts Michael Massimino and Michael Good were hoping that their tough repair mission Sunday to fix the Hubble telescope's black-hole hunter would go as smoothly as Saturday's spacewalk, which revived a dead space camera on the observatory.

No such luck.

The two managed to pull off the fix after eight hours and two minutes, but it was one of the most frustrating spacewalks in NASA history, stymied by a stuck bolt and a balky tool.

Massimino had to get inside the space telescope imaging spectrograph, or STIS, a device that scans the cosmos for black holes. It broke down five years ago, and the spacewalker had to swap out a fried circuit board.

To get there, Massimino had to remove 111 tiny screws in a cover plate on the back of the device. But to get to the screws, he had to unbolt a handrail blocking his way. It all got messy when the last bolt wouldn't move.

Massimino wrestled with it for more than an hour. When he couldn't get any of his specially designed tools to budge the stubborn fastener, he resorted to the tactic left to any aggravated repairman: brute force.

Mission Control in Houston approved the measure only after Massimino taped down the bolt so it wouldn't go flying into space when he yanked down on the handrail.

"This is like tying branches together in Boy Scouts," Good remarked, watching his colleague twist the tape around the bolt and the rail with gloved hands.

The space shuttle Atlantis was out of video contact 350 miles above Earth when Massimino tugged the handrail. Controllers in Houston could only listen as he took a deep breath and grunted, straining to break the bolt.

There was a long moment of silence, finally broken when Massimino asked his colleague hovering nearby: "Disposal bag, please." The relief was short-lived.

Minutes later, when Massimino went to start removing the 111 screws, his power drill wouldn't work.

"Oh, for Pete's sake," he exclaimed.

He climbed down from the telescope and floated back through the cargo bay to Atlantis' airlock to fetch a new tool and recharge his oxygen.

With all the delays, the repair took nearly three hours longer than intended.

In the end, the spacewalkers performed the electronic surgery but were told to forget about their second task, installing insulation on the telescope.

Just as they were cleaning up, Mission Control radioed up to them. "We're all happy to report that STIS has come back with a good aliveness test," Mission Control said.

The two men cheered.

One final spacewalk today remains to wrap up Hubble's final repair mission.


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