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Space Shuttle Repairs

An astronaut gently plucked two protruding and potentially dangerous fiber strips from the space shuttle Discovery's underbelly Wednesday. The first American woman to walk in space weighs in on the repair job.

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  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    As astronaut Steven Robinson descended the steps of Discovery, he prepared to go where no one had gone before: The underbelly of a space shuttle. Robinson and fellow astronaut Soichi Noguchi were on the mission's third spacewalk, this time to fix two dangling pieces of material known as gap fillers from between the shuttle's protective thermal tiles.

    NASA officials had decided the exposed fillers posed a risk of overheating on reentry to Earth. Robinson attached himself to the international space station's robotic arm, secured his safety tethers between his legs to avoid knocking the delicate shuttle, and spoke to shuttle pilot Jim Kelly, nicknamed "Vegas."

  • ROBINSON:

    Vegas, I'm ready to go in and get it when you are.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    With that, fellow astronauts maneuvered Robinson into place in front of the tile-covered underside. Along the way, he gave a running commentary —

  • ROBINSON:

    Can you see that?

  • VEGAS:

    Yes, we can.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    — in part to ensure that he maintained communication with his comrades.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Then it was time to pull away or trim the first protruding gap filler.

  • VEGAS:

    That's yours. Take it away.

  • ROBINSON:

    Okay, Vegas.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The procedure was expected to take up to an hour, but the first gap filler came away gently in mere seconds.

  • ANNOUNCER:

    You can see the gap filler in his fingertips.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Robinson then moved to the second exposed piece.

  • ASTRONAUT:

    Thank you. Here we go. Everybody watching?

  • ROBINSON:

    Okay. That came out very easily, probably even less force. It looks like this big patient is cured.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Two hours of today's six-hour spacewalk were spent installing an external tool and parts platform on the international space station. The astronauts ended their walk through space with some humor, knocking on the shuttle airlock to let them back in.

  • ASTRONAUT:

    Open the door.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    At NASA headquarters in Houston, scientists and officials were relieved the work went so well.

  • CINDY BEGLEY, NASA Spacewalk Officer:

    I think the procedure today went very well, the communication was good; we proved we can get access to bottom of vehicle — we just never needed to do that before I think. Also the most important thing that we've done on this entire flight is being able to image the entire bottom of the vehicle so we know what's going on down there. And we can do it early enough in the flight to be prepared to do this sort of thing in time. And I think the whole thing worked out very well.

  • MARK FERRING:

    It was a lot more complicated I think than it looks. And it's a testament to that whole team that it came off, I think, looking fairly straightforward.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    NASA officials are now mulling whether a fourth spacewalk might be needed later this week to deal with a ripped thermal blanket hanging just below the commander's window.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The number of humans who have taken a walk in space remains quite small, of course. One of them, the first American woman to do it is Kathryn Sullivan, who took her walk in 1984 from the shuttle Challenger. She's now head of the Center of Science and Industry, a museum in Columbus, Ohio. And welcome to you.

  • KATHRYN SULLIVAN:

    Thanks. Good to be with you.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    We heard Mark Ferring of NASA say that it came off looking fairly straightforward but tell us in fact how hard is it to do what happened today?

  • KATHRYN SULLIVAN:

    Well, I think it's intellectually very demanding to keep that multifaceted picture in your head as really everybody involved in it needed to do simultaneously.

    All of the steps in something like this can in fact be pre-calculated down to every joint on the arm. Where does the wrist need to be at just this moment? That can be verified on computers in advance. So you get a procedure. Jim Kelly, Wendy Lawrence, Steve Robinson — they get a procedure that they know has an awful lot of pedigree behind it. They can be very confident in that.

    Then they just have to really make sure they stay focused and disciplined and communicate well together so that they carry it out in the correct sequence and as planned and they have to stay terribly alert for early indicators that something might be diverging from what you expect. The sooner you can spot that, be alert to it, begin to react to it appropriately, the better obviously.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Is it physically demanding to walk and to work in space?

  • KATHRYN SULLIVAN:

    Well, as you can see today, the word "walking" in space — that phrase — we should have picked a different one, especially in the zero gravity environment of shuttle and space station. Your feet are not the things you move around with. You move mainly with your hands, keeping your boots, which are fairly heavy clunky bits of the spacesuit, away from elements that you might damage.

    The easiest way, of course, to move from point to point, the least strenuous way is the way that was used today to take Steve to the bottom of the vehicle, riding along on a platform on the top of that 58- foot- long arm is like having, you know, God's ability to fly through space at will. You just pay attention to the clearances and help your colleague who is driving the arm position you correctly.

    Where you do wear out — and the suit is fatiguing — it's a big balloon. It is shaped like your body. It has a total mass – it would be something over 300 pounds here on Earth because it really is a spaceship in its own right that happens to be shaped like your body. So when you want to move yourself back and forward, you need to put enough muscle force in to move your own weight — or the mass equivalent — plus the mass of the suit and to do that really just with your grip and your forearms.

    Steve and Soichi Noguchi probably did a thousand grip and release, grip and release motions today with their forearms and hands through the course of that EVA. And I'll bet they're a little fatigued as they get to bed tonight.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I suppose, Ms. Sullivan, what all of us wonder is really just what is it like? What does it feel like to be out there?

  • KATHRYN SULLIVAN:

    Well, for me it was a fascinating and intense combination of a number of things. The total number of people to ever fly in space at all is still not even 500. And only about a third of those ever even get to go outside on a spacewalk so it's a pretty coveted, very neat thing to get to do and you're excited about that. You're eager about that, thrilled at the opportunity.

    They're usually pretty complex tasks that are a great challenge to accomplish and that folks like the folks we watched today take great pride and a great sense of responsibility in making sure that they do accomplish well.

    But then finally wrapping around all of that, wrapping around the eagerness, the excitement and the professional rigor is just the amazing fact that you are where you are. And you and a couple thousand colleagues of yours, most of whom you know, managed to put you there. The suit that you're in feels like a part of you. You heard Steve commenting on that today. It becomes bulky though it does become fairly second nature and a very comfortable place to work, except that when you move the spaceship out of your way or pivot away from the space station there's this gigantic blue and white beach ball called the Earth with no window frame around it and it's sliding past you at 17,500 miles an hour.

    Both Soichi and Steve today had some of the finest views I think a low Earth orbit spacewalking astronaut has ever had. And yes I was jealous.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    As we mentioned in our set-up piece, there is now talk about whether they might have to go out for a fourth unplanned walk or drift through space. Is there a point where the number of these builds up and takes its toll? I mean, is that part of now the calculation of whether it is wise to send them back out?

  • KATHRYN SULLIVAN:

    That will enter the calculation in a couple of ways. One is every time you dump a load of air out of the air lock and then have to re-pressurize it to bring folks back in, you're letting go. You're losing some oxygen and nitrogen, so what's called consumables, both on the station side and on the spacesuit. You have to look at the spacesuit itself. I can't imagine that they don't have enough batteries stowed on board for an extra battery charge, extra air scrubbers in the backpack and so on. They'll take a look at that and make sure the consumables work.

    Steve and Soichi are well enough conditioned with the three spacewalk flight that you already were prepared for that I would doubt seriously that crew fatigue would be a factor. It might be enough of a factor that they would hold off until at least Friday before sending them out on a fourth EVA, if it proves necessary.

    But the risk of each flight or each spacewalk is sort of a risk in its own right. And I'm sure that what the analysts and flight control team will be looking at in the next 24 hours just as they did with these gap fillers, we have a certain risk of doing an EVA, and you can't make that become zero. There's some other risks of coming home with this damaged blanket still in the condition that it's in. Which one gives me the greater certainty that I'm bringing the crew home safe? And that will be the course of action that they'll choose.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And briefly you know of course there was a lot of debate about whether to send an astronaut for first time to the bottom of the shuttle. Does what happened today help build to some kind of future efforts?

  • KATHRYN SULLIVAN:

    I think it certainly does, just in the same way that in the early U.S. program Gemini, all the flights of Gemini and the early flights of Apollo, each were taking on one building block that was a part of getting to the Moon and back and verifying it, testing it, gaining experience on it, before you strung them altogether, sending people to the moon.

    So on some future shuttle flight which I certainly hope there will be more of, if one found that there was more severe damage on the bottom of the orbiter, to go out and repair that damage on that flight, you'd at least know that you had some certainty; you had some knowledge, you had some experience about how to safely put a crew member on the bottom side of the orbiter. The piece that would be left to get done would be plenty challenging in its own right. Don't get me wrong. But you would have taken some of the big unknowns and made them a little more familiar and given the entire team some preliminary experience with it. All of that helps in reducing risk.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right. Kathryn Sullivan, thank you very much for joining us.

  • KATHRYN SULLIVAN:

    A pleasure.

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