Space repair man fixes tile gap fillers
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: August 3, 2005
Like an anxious mom plucking out splinters, astronaut Stephen Robinson gently pulled two dislodged gap fillers from the shuttle Discovery's belly early today in an unprecedented 223-mile-high repair job.
"I'm grasping it, I'm pulling, it's coming out very easily," Robinson radioed. "OK, the offending gap filler has been removed."
Exactly 10 minutes later, after astronauts Wendy Lawrence and James Kelly guided the arm to the second protruding gap filler, Robinson completed the repair job with little fanfare.
"I'm ready for brakes," he called, asking the arm operators to stabilize the robotic crane.
"Brakes are on. You're go," Kelly replied from inside the Destiny laboratory module.
"Thank you. Here we go..."
"OK, I'd like to move away from the orbiter, body aft 5 feet please," he radioed.
"Body aft. We're taking the brakes off."
"Sounds great. OK, that came out very easily, probably even less force," Robinson commented. "It looks like this big patient is cured.
And with that, the Discovery astronauts pulled off one of the more memorable space shuttle repair jobs in program history, venturing below the underside of the shuttle for the first time to service an area of the spacecraft that is normally considered strictly off limits.
Spectacular television views from cameras mounted on the space station, Discovery's robot arm and Robinson's space suit allowed flight controllers and armchair astronauts around the world to follow along as the spacewalker worked alone against the backdrop of Discovery's tiled under belly.
Shots from fellow spacewalker Soichi Noguchi's helmet camera showed the entire space shuttle against the blue-and-white globe of Earth with Robinson visible in the distance on the end of the station's robot arm.
Contrary to news accounts that focused on what some viewed as an especially risky venture, Robinson had no problems at all, never came close to damaging any surrounding tiles and completed the repair work in the time needed to simply pluck the gap fillers out.
But the astronauts clearly took the work seriously, reviewing safety precautions while the arm slowly moved Robinson to the work sites below the shuttle.
"It goes without saying we don't want any inadvertent contact with tile or the belly of the orbiter," astronaut Andrew Thomas called from inside the shuttle-station complex.
"You've got a lot of things still hanging onto you even though we cleaned you up, so try to keep an eye on where they are. ... And under the orbiter, we'll probably have comm drop outs, we may lose wireless video. So we'll need continuous communications protocol while you're doing the (job) so we can be assured it's going properly."
Thomas cautioned that if Robinson had to resort to a hacksaw to cut the gap fillers off, "the serrated edge is also going to be sharp so you need to watch that. If by any chance you do need to contact the tile with your hands, we would require only gentle hand reaction alone. We want you to distribute the load over several fingers or the backs of the fingers. How copy?"
"Copy all, particularly the hand touch," Robinson said as he approached the shuttle "My goal, of course, is not to touch the tiles at all, but I have touched the tiles at KSC with my work gloves on, so I know what to expect. I'll use a very gentle touch."
As it turned out, he didn't to.
"I can see it pretty well," he called at one point, referring the the first gap filler.
"How far are you from it, by the way?" Kelly asked.
I'm about eight feet, maybe seven feet, looking straight down on it. It looks to be about close to three inches on one side and about an inch and a half on the other side. The corner looks like it is bent over, presumably by air loads" during launch.
A few moments later, he called Kelly: "Vegas, I'm ready to go get it if you are. ... I'm ready to go."
"It's your show, Steve, take it away," Thomas said."
After the repair work was over, Robinson took a moment to enjoy the spectacular view and to chat with flight controllers in Houston.
"You guys did a great job," astronaut Mike Massimino called from mission control.
"Thank you, Mike," someone replied.
"We trained for four years," Robinson joked. "We're going to spend the next four years signing autographs! ... I'm getting the best view. Oh my goodness... just beautiful."
The 61st spacewalk devoted to station assembly and maintenance began at 4:48 a.m. and ended at 10:49 a.m. for a duration of six hours and one minute. Robinson and Noguchi logged 20 hours and five minutes of EVA time during their three excursions, pushing the station total to 368 hours and 20 minutes.
Earlier today, Robinson and Noguchi installed a large tool storage platform on the side of the Quest airlock module. Noguchi also mounted an experiment package on the top of the station's P6 solar array truss. But mission planners earlier decided to defer installation of a camera mount to a future spacewalk and after the gap filler fix, they opted to also defer retrieval of a radiator coupling.
Engineers are still debating what, if anything, might need to be done about a damaged insulation blanket just below commander Eileen Collins' left cockpit window. Astronauts at the Johnson Space Center worked overnight to develop possible remedies, but no final decisions have been made.
During a news briefing Tuesday evening, Wayne Hale, chairman of NASA's mission management team, said he hoped to make a final decision later today or tomorrow, after the engineering analysis is complete.
"Right now, we know that in terms of the local area, it's OK," Hale said. "This is just a question of could it fly back and hit something on the after part of the vehicle? And, in fact, the biggest work going on, I think, is to determine whether or not it's even possible the blanket could come off."
The Discovery astronauts used a camera on the end of a sensor boom attached to the shuttle's robot arm today to collect additional, close-up pictures of the blanket to help engineers assess the damage.
See the Status Center for full play-by-play coverage.