HOUSTON - Dangling on the end of a shaky robotic arm today, a NASA astronaut rescued a torn solar blanket and ensured the short-term future of the International Space Station (ISS).
Mission managers feared the crumpled, torn solar wing would threaten the completion of the orbital laboratory, as the space agency's aging space shuttle fleet is set to retire in 2010. With the array now patched up and fully deployed, however, NASA mission managers have one less power-managing headache to remedy.
Veteran astronaut Scott Parazynski led the unprecedented spacewalk, patching up the solar array at the far end of the unfinished space station.
"What an accomplishment, beautiful," Parazynski said as he watched the freshly repaired array unfurl from his vantage on the end of an extended robotic arm. "It's as taut as a sail. Everything looks completely intact."
Spacewalker Doug Wheelock watched Parazynski traverse through space, ensuring robotic arm operators did not bump him into the electrified solar arrays during his 45-minute journey.
"This is just beyond description," Parazynski said of his view of Earth during the ride to the damage site.
The troubling solar wing, one of four anchored to the Port 6 (P6) solar array truss, snagged and tore about 80 percent through its deployment on Oct. 30. The damage came just two days after astronaut Dan Tani discovered worrisome metallic shavings in a set of solar-array-rotating gears.
Mission managers huddled to decide which one of the problems most threatened the arrival of the Columbus module, which is scheduled to arrive in December on the space shuttle Atlantis.
ISS lead flight director Derek Hassmann said yesterday that fixing the maimed solar wing was priority number-one.
"We need to address one of these two problems before we proceed," Hassmann said. "The P6 solar array is the ... priority problem that we can go fix now."
Teams of engineers descended on Johnson Space Center (JSC) in response, throwing a spacewalk plan together in little more than two days. Mission managers said comparative spacewalks take months to plan.
Parazynski, also a medical doctor, endured the seven hour and 19 minute spacewalk with Wheelock to revive the solar wing.
"It's a bit of a reach here," Parazynski said as he reached out to clip frayed wires and stitch in five hand-made cuff links to strengthen the weakened blanket.
"That's what those monkey arms are for," said Pamela Melroy, space shuttle Discovery commander.
"My arms are long, but not that long," responded Parazynski, also known as "Longbow," who is an impressive 6 feet, 2 inches.
Once the blanket was sewn up, robotic arm operators Tani and Stephanie Wilson pulled Parazynski away from the array. Parazynski looked on as Mission Control deployed the solar blanket.
"Beautiful," he said when the array extended to a full 110 feet (33.5 meters).
Parazynski and Wheelock's success was marred only by the loss of a pair of needle-nose pliers, which drifted away as they entered the Quest airlock.
The spacewalking duo began the extravehicular activity (EVA) at 6:03 a.m. EDT (1003 GMT), and endured seven hours and 19 minutes of time working in the vacuum of space. Parazynski now has 47 hours and 5 minutes of spacewalking time under his belt while Wheelock now has 21 hours and 41 minutes.
The spacewalk was the fourth and final EVA of the STS-120 mission and the 96th to build the space station.
Shortly after Parazynski and Wheelock climbed into the airlock, Melroy announced two awards for the star spacewalkers. The Order of Saint Michael-an impressive military award-for Wheelock, and a less formal award for Parazynski.
"Scott, you never were able to get a medal at the Olympics," Melroy said of Parazynski's luge experience. "But I think everybody would say that you received the EVA gold medal today."
Space shuttle Discovery and its seven-astronaut crew is slated to undock with the ISS on Nov. 5 and land in daylight on Nov. 7.
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