- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2005


NASA announced yesterday that an astronaut will perform a spacewalk to fix two worrisome pieces of filler material protruding from Discovery’s belly — a high-stakes operation to repair a problem that could threaten the shuttle during re-entry.

Wayne Hale, the deputy shuttle program manager, told a press conference that engineers simply did not know enough about the problem to leave it unattended, so they decided to conduct the spacewalk tomorrow to “set our minds at rest.”

“At the end of the day, the bottom line is there is large uncertainty because nobody has a very good handle on the aerodynamics at those altitudes and at those speeds,” Mr. Hale said. “Given that large degree of uncertainty, life could be normal during entry or some bad things could happen.”

NASA managers have spent the past few days trying to decide whether the cloth strips could cause overheating during re-entry and lead to another disaster like the one that destroyed the shuttle Columbia and its crew in February 2003.

The ceramic-fiber cloth that is used to fill the gaps between Discovery’s thermal tiles is sticking out an inch or less in two spots, and some engineers worry that the material might disturb the air flow enough during re-entry to cause a dangerous heat buildup beneath the spaceship.

Astronauts have never ventured under an orbiting shuttle before and have never attempted to fix their ship’s thermal shielding in flight.

It will be a largely unrehearsed operation — and a high-stakes one, too, with the risk that the astronauts might accidentally damage Discovery’s fragile thermal shield and make matters worse.

“The biggest thing that everybody’s concerned about is doing no harm,” said Mission Control spacewalk officer Cindy Begley.

Nevertheless, she said she was not overly concerned.

“It’s not actually that bad,” she said.

All spacewalks are risky, she said, adding, “It’s just new stuff we’ve never done before.”

The plan called for the operation to be performed by Stephen Robinson on the end of the space station’s 58-foot robot arm, which will bend and wrap around the side of Discovery to enable him to reach all the way underneath.

Mr. Robinson will first try to tug the dangling strips out with his gloved fingers. If that did not work, he will use a hacksaw to cut them off while holding the material taut with forceps.

Discovery’s other astronauts and Mission Control will watch him the whole time via robot arm cameras, but he would be out of sight of his spacewalking partner, Soichi Noguchi, who will be busy elsewhere. NASA decided two astronauts would be too many for the work site and might cause too much banging around.

Earlier yesterday, Mr. Robinson and Mr. Noguchi stepped outside Discovery and replaced a broken gyroscope on the International Space Station.

They pulled out a 660-pound, washing machine-size gyroscope that stopped working three years ago and installed a new one in its place. After two attempts to hook it up, they got power flowing to the unit.

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