CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - A spacewalking astronaut fixed a damaged solar power wing on the International Space Station on Saturday during a daring and unprecedented outing that clears NASA to continue construction of the orbital outpost.
Shuttle Discovery’s lead spacewalker Scott Parazynski, anchored on an extension boom on the station’s robot arm, snipped snarled wires and attached five home-made braces to replace hinges that broke while one of the station’s 110-foot-long (33.5-metre-long) solar power wings was extended on Tuesday.
The shuttle and space station crews cheered when the last of the golden panels were pulled out of their storage box and the wing reached its full length, providing structural rigidity.
NASA had said it could not continue construction of the station if the wing had remained partly retracted. The unprecedented repair, planned on the fly, clears the U.S. space agency for launching Europe’s Columbus laboratory next month.
“What an accomplishment,” Parazynski said. “Congratulations to the whole flight team that came up with this brilliant concept.”
Throughout the seven-hour spacewalk, flight directors kept a worried eye on the clock.
The 45-minute commute from the worksite to the airlock was a concern — NASA likes keep travel time under 30 minutes — and the extension boom, which was borrowed from the shuttle, risked being damaged if it remained unpowered and without heating for too long in the cold of space.
The boom, added after the 2003 Columbia accident, contains cameras and laser scanners for the shuttle crew to survey their ship’s heat shield prior to returning through the atmosphere for landing. Columbia was destroyed during re-entry due to heat shield damage.
NASA had hoped repairing the station’s wing would be a simple 30-minute job. But Parazynski’s descriptions of the frayed wires, ripped grommets and broken hinges dashed that wish.
“Oh, that’s just ugly,” said Discovery commander Pamela Melroy, catching a glimpse of the snarl through Parazynski’s helmet camera.
After cutting away two tangles to relieve tension in the panel, the astronaut slipped the ends of insulated aluminum straps, nicknamed “cuff links,” into drill holes in the wing’s frame.
It was a tight fit. Space station commander Peggy Whitson and Discovery pilot George Zamka had spent a day making the straps from materials scavenged from the outpost.
“We’re all on the flight deck cheering when we see it go through the hole,” Melroy, who oversaw the spacewalk from aboard Discovery, told Parazynski.
Repair complete, robot arm operator Stephanie Wilson moved Parazynski away from the wing so he could safely oversee its redeployment. Slowly, the remaining panels unfurled, leaving the braces intact.
“The cuff links remain in place. All looks good,” Parazynski reported. “Very smooth.”
The celebrations were starting when Melroy reminded her crew they still needed to bring Parazynski and his spacewalking partner, Douglas Wheelock, back to the airlock.
Discovery is scheduled to leave the station on Monday and return to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday. It leaves behind a problem for future crews to tackle — contamination in a rotary joint that controls solar power wings on the opposite side of the station’s frame.
NASA had hopes to inspect the joint but opted to repair the broken wing instead.
Reporting by Irene Klotz, editing by Xavier Briand; 321 432-0220