- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

HOUSTON (AP) — NASA unfurled the International Space Station’s new solar wings yesterday in a move that looked like a giant accordion being stretched out in orbit.

“Big day for space station. Congratulations,” Mission Control radioed Space Shuttle Atlantis as the electricity generating panels glinted like gold bars in the sunlight. “We’re all extremely happy.”

The unfurling of the 240-foot wings was delayed about three hours because of a software glitch with the hardware’s Ferris wheel-like rotating joint. That mechanism allows the solar panels to move with the sun to maximize the amount of electricity generated.

The crew did not run into any trouble with the folded-up panels sticking together in the cold, a problem with a 2000 mission. This time, NASA devised a method for unfurling the solar wings that allowed them to be heated up by the sun.

The solar wings — part of a $372 million addition that arrived aboard Atlantis earlier this week — were folded and mounted on blankets during the ride into space. They will provide about a quarter of the space station’s power when the orbiting outpost is completed in 2010.

The flight marks the first construction on the half-built space station since the Columbia disaster 31/2 years ago. The new piece was installed during two spacewalks earlier this week.

Astronauts Joe Tanner and Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper will again don their spacesuits today to conduct the third and final spacewalk of the 11-day mission. Among other things, they will replace an antenna and gather science experiments.

Atlantis undocks from the space station on Sunday and will return home Wednesday.

After the unfurling of the solar wings, the astronauts aboard Atlantis and the space station had some down time and answered questions submitted by people on Earth. They were asked about sleep, sights and smells 200 miles above Earth.

Thomas Reiter, a German who has been at the space station since July, said, “It’s very refreshing actually to sleep in space.”

Being weightless means you float around in your sleeping bag and don’t have to worry about putting pressure on your side or back, he said.

Mr. Reiter said he has spotted the Egyptian pyramids from space. As for the space station, he said it does not smell like a locker room as one listener suggested, but rather has a fleeting “technical smell” from all the equipment.

A Canadian schoolgirl asked why the astronauts need the robotic arm to move things if everything is weightless in space. Atlantis astronaut Steve MacLean explained that although objects don’t have weight, they still have inertia — if you pushed something, it would keep going forever, he said, so the arm is needed to help stop things.

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