Orbital Champ: ISS Astronaut Sets New U.S. Spacewalk Record
This view from the helmet camera of astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria shows his spacewalking partner Sunita Williams as she takes a photograph in a Feb. 8, 2007 spacewalk.
Credit: NASA TV.

This story was updated at 6:34 p.m. EST.

WASHINGTON -- NASA has a new U.S. spacewalking champion: Michael Lopez-Alegria.

The veteran astronaut and International Space Station (ISS) commander [image] broke the American cumulative spacewalking record Thursday during the third in a series of assembly-themed sessions for his Expedition 14 crew [video preview].

“It’s a nice day outside,” Lopez-Alegria said near the spacewalk’s end. “Do I have to go in?”

Lopez-Alegria spent six hours and 40 minutes working outside the ISS with Expedition 14 flight engineer Sunita Williams, who herself holds the record for the most spacewalking time by a female astronaut [image].

Highlighting their orbital work was the jettison of two, 18-pound (eight-kilogram) thermal shrouds, each larger than a king-size bed sheet and bundled into a lumpy garbage can-sized mass [image]. The shrouds were no longer needed, with NASA flight controllers concerned that the equipment they blanketed on the station’s Port 3 main truss segment could overheat if the covers remained in place, mission managers said.

“I don't think I could do it better than that,” Lopez-Alegria said after carefully tossing the shrouds aft, below and slightly to starboard of the ISS on a path that would not prove a future debris threat for the station. “On behalf of all the crewmembers who have trained for this task, I say good riddance to those XPOP shrouds."

"Very nice," Williams said after the first shroud flew overboard on track. "I think that was pretty sweet."

Mission managers said they picked the shrouds’ trajectories carefully to ensure they burn up in about 20 days or so and pose to return or impact risk to the ISS.

The U.S. spacewalk champ

But it was at 12:16 p.m. EST (1716 GMT) -- the three hour, 50 minute mark of today’s excursion precisely -- when Lopez-Alegria surpassed NASA astronaut Jerry Ross to snag the U.S. spacewalking title with a total of 61 hours and 22 minutes of spacesuit-ed work [image]. Ross logged 58 hours and 32 minutes during nine spacewalks and seven spaceflights, and topped the U.S. spacewalker list since 2002 until today.

“If we made it look easy or otherwise, it was thanks to a lot of people on the ground,” Lopez-Alegria said as he thanked a long list of astronaut trainers, staff, engineers and flight controllers.

Thursday’s ISS assembly work marks the end of a three-part series of U.S. spacewalks that have been strewn with new records. The Expedition 14 crew’s Jan. 31, Feb. 4, and Feb. 8 spacewalks with another planned for Feb. 22.

“We’ve never executed more than a single EVA at one time in a stage, meaning between shuttle missions,” said Glenda Laws, NASA’s lead station spacewalk officer, adding that a record five ISS spacewalks will be performed during the Expedition 14 mission.

Derek Hassmann, said the crew’s perseverance throughout the packed spacewalk schedule not only moved the ISS assembly process forward, but paves the way for future station assembly plans.

“They met all my expectations and more,” Hassman said of the Expedition 14 crew. “The series of EVAs, I think, have shown that we have an important new capability on the station.”

Lopez-Alegria will have a chance to stretch his U.S. spacewalk lead on Feb. 22 during a Russian extravehicular activity (EVA) -- to be his 10th trip outside a spacecraft in orbit -- with Expedition 14 flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin to free a stuck cargo ship antenna.

But the NASA astronaut has long way to go to catch up to cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyov, who currently owns the world’s spacewalking title with 16 spacewalks, 82 hours and 22 minutes of spacesuit-ed work under his belt, space agency officials said.

At 29 hours and 17 minutes and four career EVAs, Williams continues to lengthen her lead as the top female spacewalker, a mantle she won during Sunday’s spacewalk.

Orbital ISS assembly

Thursday’s spacewalk began about a half-hour earlier than planned at 8:26 a.m. EST (1326 GMT), with Lopez-Alegria and Williams ahead or on schedule during their orbital work.

"The hatch is open,” Williams said. “Beautiful day.”

In addition to removing and tossing out the unneeded thermal shrouds and some smaller covers, the spacewalkers also deployed one of two foundation points for a future cargo carrier for ISS spare parts and loosed a set of latches on the recently installed Port 5 segment at the leftmost edge of the station's main truss.

The latter task primes the Port 5 truss [video] for the relocation of the station’s older Port 6 solar array truss, which currently rises like a mast near the orbital laboratory’s midpoint. The Port 6 truss will be hauled to the end of Port 5, its final location, during a planned September shuttle flight by NASA.

Thursday’s spacewalk marked the 80th EVA to support ISS assembly or maintenance, the 52nd staged from the station itself and the 32nd to begin at NASA’s Quest airlock. It also marked the fourth spacewalk for the Expedition 14 crew to date, counting Tyurin and Lopez-Alegria’s November 2006 EVA in Russian Orlan spacesuits [video].

Lopez-Alegria, for his part, was eager to remind himself of his surroundings while working outside his spacecraft Thursday.

“When you get a chance, take a look long the solar array, it’s a beautiful view,” Lopez-Alegria told Williams as a blue Earth backlit both astronauts at their perch on the station’s portside edge. “I feel like I’m water skiing behind some huge boat, dragging my feet in the water.”

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