- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2005

HOUSTON (AP) — With a gentle tug of his gloved right hand, Discovery astronaut Stephen Robinson removed two worrisome pieces of filler material from the shuttle’s belly yesterday in an unprecedented space repair job that drew a big sigh of relief from NASA.

But he may have to go out again to fix yet another trouble spot.

Mr. Robinson was barely back inside the shuttle and out of his spacesuit when Mission Control informed the crew there was a chance that a fourth spacewalk might be needed tomorrow to deal with a torn thermal blanket below a cockpit window.

The concern is that a 20-inch section of the blanket could rip away during re-entry, whip backward and slam into the shuttle, perhaps causing grave damage. Engineers expect to know by today whether the danger is real and whether any blanket trimming is required.

It took Mr. Robinson just seconds to pull out each short dangling strip of ceramic-fiber cloth, which engineers had feared might cause the shuttle to overheat during its descent through the atmosphere and lead to another Columbia-type disaster.

Mr. Robinson never had to pull out his forceps or his makeshift hacksaw, which he took along just in case the material was stuck between the thermal tiles and he needed to employ more force.

It was a delicate operation: The astronaut had to be careful not to bump into the shuttle’s fragile thermal tiles and make things worse.

Standing on the end of the International Space Station’s 58-foot robot arm, he tugged out the first piece as the two linked spacecraft passed over Massachusetts. By the time he had pulled out the next fabric strip 10 minutes later, the spacecraft had crossed the Atlantic and was zooming over the French coast.

“That was the ride of the century,” Mr. Robinson exclaimed.

His crewmates inside the shuttle kept an eye on him via the robot-arm camera. His spacewalking partner watched from 75 feet away, though he lost sight of him at one point.

Officials insisted it was absolutely safe to simply remove the fillers. The material’s primary purpose in those two spots was to prevent the shuttle’s ceramic thermal tiles from rubbing against each other and chipping during liftoff.

Teams of engineers and thermodynamic specialists also were studying the torn, crumpled blanket beneath the commander’s side window.

The blanket is covered with a quiltlike fabric and stuffed like a pillow, and serves as insulation. It apparently was ripped by debris during the July 26 liftoff.

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