- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 9, 2006

HOUSTON (AP) — A key test of a spacewalking technique that could be used someday to repair space shuttle heat shields worked well yesterday and got good reviews from the two Discovery astronauts who may have to put it to work for real on Wednesday.

The repair simulation put the two astronauts at the end of an oscillating, 100-foot combination of a robotic arm and an extension pole that Piers Sellers said made him feel “like a bug on the end of a fishing rod.”

In a 7-hour spacewalk, the first of three orbital excursions planned for this mission, Mr. Sellers and Michael Fossum said they could do most of the mock tasks they were assigned with only moderate difficulty.

And that’s what NASA wanted to hear.

“It was above and beyond” what engineers expected, flight director Tony Ceccacci said after the spacewalk. “Hopefully, we’ll never have to use it [the boom for repairs] but we know we have the capability.”

The technique using the extension on the robotic arm was developed to make sure there is not a repeat of the Columbia disaster, which killed seven astronauts in 2003. A piece of foam from the shuttle’s external fuel tank struck Columbia’s wing during launch, creating a breach that allowed fiery gases to penetrate the shuttle during its return flight to Earth.

Last year, emergency spacewalking repairs were needed because of heat-shield damage to Discovery.

The astronauts may get a chance to use the boom for a real repair on their third spacewalk, now scheduled for Wednesday. NASA managers yesterday were still evaluating whether a piece of fabric filler protruding from the thermal tiles on Discovery’s belly needs to be removed. If it does, Mr. Fossum and Mr. Sellers would have to go back on the boom and pull out the filler.

Orbiter project manager Steve Poulos said a decision will be made today on whether this gap filler — which is cracked, partially broken and just a couple inches at its longest point — must be removed.

The two astronauts also managed to enjoy themselves. At one point while waiting for Mr. Fossum, Mr. Sellers did a couple of flips. Both let out frequent “woo-hoos” during their time in space.

They also had time to marvel at the view from 210 miles above Earth.

“It’s beautiful,” Mr. Fossum said. “The thin glow of the moonlit Earth below.”

And when Mission Control pointed out to Mr. Sellers that he could view the British Isles over his left shoulder, the English-born spacewalker said: “Wow. Oh, my goodness. It’s a beautiful day in Ireland.”

Looking down at the Caspian Sea several minutes later, Mr. Fossum said: “This is a good view. … I’m in a dream; nobody wake me up.”

Before their work on the boom-arm combo, the astronauts also had an assignment on the outside of the International Space Station, immobilizing a cable cutter on the station’s mobile transporter, or railroad car, and rerouting a cable through it. A duplicate cable cutter accidentally cut a cable leading to the transporter late last year, and NASA wanted to make sure it doesn’t happen again because the cable is a conduit for power, data and video images.

The transporter moves along the space station exterior and is used for constructing the complex. The severed cable will be replaced during a second spacewalk set for tomorrow.

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