- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - Astronauts cautiously opened one of the newly installed solar wings at the international space station on Friday, as flight controllers below watched with anxiety.

To everyone’s relief, the first wing went out smoothly. Nothing hung up, and none of the panels stuck together. One more wing, though, was still to be unfurled.

“We think we’re in great shape,” reported Lee Archambault, commander of the docked space shuttle Discovery.

A highlight of the mission, the long, deliberate process began the morning after this last set of solar wings was installed at the orbiting outpost.

Right on cue _ “ready, ready, mark” _ astronaut John Phillips pushed the button that commanded the first wing to start unfurling. It slowly stretched out like a folded-up map, a gleaming golden hue in the sunlight. Five minutes later, when the 115-foot wing was about halfway open, he stopped the motion.

NASA wanted to avoid any snagging or sticking on the delicate solar panels that are crucial for providing more power and boosting science research. As a result, the astronauts were ordered to wait nearly an hour before proceeding, so the partially opened wing could soak up sunlight and be less likely to jam.

Most, if not all of the 10 space travelers, watched the first wing unfold, peering out windows and through camera lenses, ready to hit the “abort” button in case of trouble.

Flight controllers as well as managers anxiously monitored everything, given all the problems in the past. The last time a solar wing was unfurled in 2007, it caught on a guide wire and ripped. Emergency spacewalking repairs were needed to fix it.

“Pins and needles? Yes, a little bit,” said Dan Hartman, chairman of the space station mission management team. “There will be all kinds of emotions and, hopefully, jubilation at the end.”

If all goes well, by early to mid-afternoon, the two new wings will span more than 240 feet. Along with the six older wings already in place, they will generate enough electrical power for about 42 large houses, according to NASA.

Before the unfurling began, Mission Control had the astronauts move the linked station and shuttle into a position to keep as much sunlight as possible on the unfolding wings. That kicked off a countdown of sorts; the spacecraft could remain in that position for no more than five hours, otherwise some parts of the station could get too hot or too cold and malfunction.

On Thursday, a pair of spacewalking astronauts hooked up the $300 million framework that holds the wings.

Discovery is due to leave the space station Wednesday. Its landing, though, may be moved up a day to preserve science samples being returned from the station. Right now, touchdown is scheduled for March 28.

___

On the Net:

NASA: https://spaceflight.nasa.gov

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