- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — There’s no space in the space station.

So, a few weeks ago, the two astronauts who live there tossed out some junk, like so many old hubcaps for the trash heap.

Only this stuff floated away in space.

And the throwing away — done during a recent spacewalk — was done cautiously so that the discarded antenna covers and expired pump panel didn’t become deadly boomerangs.

Such is life in space, post-Columbia.

With no garbage pickup by shuttles for nearly two years, the International Space Station is looking more and more like a cluttered attic.

“Room limited,” is how astronaut Mike Fincke describes it.

The problem is, shuttle deliveries and pickups won’t resume until spring, and that’s if NASA is lucky. A barrage of hurricanes and their devastating blow to NASA’s launch site have delayed by at least a couple months the next shuttle flight, by Discovery.

So the stuff will keep piling up and up.

“It’s at the point where we have to figure out a way to handle it. You can’t just wish it away,” said astronaut Kenneth Bowersox, who was the space station’s skipper when the Space Shuttle Columbia went down.

Astronaut Michael Foale, another former space station commander, said even more important than what Discovery brings on that first flight will be what it takes away.

“It’s essential that when that first shuttle comes up, before they do anything, is they start to clear out the items that we need to deliver back to Earth on the shuttle,” he said.

“But we are nowhere near as critical as I thought we were on space station Mir,” added the former Mir resident.

NASA takes little comfort in the fact that the 6-year-old space station isn’t as dingy or messy as Russia’s Mir, which tumbled from the sky in 2001 after 15 years of operation. The whole point, from the beginning, was to avoid a pigpen in orbit. Yet here NASA is, on the verge of creating a mirror image of Mir.

Columbia’s catastrophic plunge from the sky on Feb. 1, 2003, grounded the shuttle fleet and halted all space station construction.

The Russian Space Agency has been sending manned capsules and supply ships to the station. The cargo carriers have provided backup stores of precious oxygen that have come in handy during the repeated breakdowns of the station’s main oxygen generator, a vexing problem that eventually could force an evacuation. But the Russian spacecraft can hold, at most, only a third of what the shuttle can carry, and they are not exactly frequent fliers.

Among the bigger items taking up valuable space on the station until shuttles soar again: racks holding science experiments; broken exercise equipment and other machines; worn-out spacewalking suits; and more than a dozen rendezvous and docking devices in need of engineering face-lifts by the Russian Space Agency, which can no longer afford to keep making or buying new parts.

Mr. Bowersox said a neat-freak would be, well, freaking out aboard the space station.

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