- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. | Spacewalking astronauts completed almost all of the greasy repairs on a gummed-up joint at the International Space Station on Saturday, leaving just a few chores behind for another day.

As spacewalk No. 3 was getting under way, a new recycling system for converting urine into drinking water broke down again.

It was the third day in a row that the urine processor inexplicably shut down, and it appeared to be the same kind of sluggish motor trouble seen before. Engineers on the ground scrambled to figure out what might be wrong; the problem could jeopardize NASA’s plan to return recycled water to Earth aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour next weekend.

The $154 million water-recycling system, delivered a week ago by Endeavour, is essential for allowing more astronauts to live on the space station next year.

Saturday’s spacewalk by Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper and Stephen Bowen was considered the most grueling of the mission and had been expected to last the longest, focusing entirely on the clogged solar wing-rotating joint. The joint stopped working properly more than a year ago, after it became jammed with metal grit from grinding parts, and cannot keep the solar wings on the right side of the space station pointed toward the sun.

The astronauts got started on the unprecedented clean-and-lube job — and bearing replacements — on Tuesday.

Mission Control wanted to keep Saturday’s spacewalk close to the seven-hour mark and, six hours in, told the astronauts to wrap up what they were doing and start heading back in. The remaining chores — cleaning and greasing one final section of the joint and installing one more bearing — will be squeezed into the fourth and final spacewalk of the mission Monday. That’s when astronauts will grease up the good rotary joint on the left side of the orbiting complex.

Mrs. Stefanyshyn-Piper — who lost a $100,000 tool kit during Tuesday’s spacewalk — had to share a grease gun with Mr. Bowen 225 miles up. To make up for the grease-gun shortage, they took out a caulking gun normally reserved for repairs to the shuttle’s heat shield, but didn’t need it. They carefully guarded all their tethers so nothing would get loose.

As for the broken urine-recycling system, flight controllers and astronauts alike were disappointed when it stopped working again Saturday. Mission Control radioed up the bad news just before the spacewalk began.

NASA wants samples of the recycled water returned aboard Endeavour in order to conduct tests and ensure that it’s safe to drink. The equipment is supposed to run for at least 90 days before anyone takes a sip.

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