“Looks like you fixed the station,” Mission Control radioed. The problem had cut the amount of electrical power available to the orbiting lab and a variety of equipment had to be turned off.
Engineers on the ground and the astronauts in orbit scrambled over the Labor Day weekend to devise makeshift tools to clean metal shavings from the socket of the troublesome bolt, after last week’s failed effort to plug in the new power-relay unit.
This time, NASA’s Sunita Williams and Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide were armed with a blue toothbrush, a wire brush and other jury-rigged tools.
The two applied grease to the sticky bolt as well as extra pressure and plain old jiggling. They also brushed and blew away most if not all the metal shavings, debris that was discovered during last week’s eight-hour extravaganza, one of the longest spacewalks on record.
Although the space station remained stable, NASA was in a hurry to get the problem fixed because of the impending departure of the U.S. astronaut who operated the hefty robot arm from inside, Joseph Acaba. He’s due to return to Earth in 1 weeks.
Altogether, the space station has four of these power-switching units, which relay electricity from the eight solar wings. Being down one unit meant the orbiting complex could draw power from only six of those wings.
The power store was further degraded over the weekend when, in an unrelated problem, a tripped circuit breaker prevented full access to yet another solar panel. That left the space station running on just five wings, a vulnerable situation.
Tension mounted in Mission Control as Wednesday’s spacewalk approached the four-hour mark and the power-switching unit had yet to be installed. NASA considered calling it quits at that point, but asked the astronauts whether they could keep going, given their progress. Both spacewalkers insisted on pressing ahead.
As Hoshide started to drive the bolt home, Mission Control asked the astronauts to report everything they saw and felt.
“My left hand just fell asleep because my fingers are crossed too long,” Mission Control said. “We’re holding our breath.”
Finally, 4 hours into the spacewalk, Hoshide reported: “It is locked.”
Mission Control burst into applause. Soon afterward, Mission Control confirmed that the power-switching box was firmly in place and working properly.
“It’s been like living on the set of Apollo 13 for the past few days,” said Mission Control, referring to the 1970 effort to save the three astronauts on the aborted moon mission. “NASA does impossible pretty darn well.”
With their main task accomplished, the spacewalkers turned their attention to more mundane work. NASA stretched out the spacewalk for a camera replacement.
In a blog on NASA’s web site, Williams noted that repair tips had streamed in.
“Lots of folks suggested that WD40 would do the trick, but getting a can of that stuff to work in space is sort of difficult. So, we have a couple other tricks up our sleeve,” she wrote earlier this week.
Williams, a Navy captain making her sixth spacewalk, is now the world’s most experienced female spacewalker with more than 40 hours spent out in the vacuum. The previous record-holder, Peggy Whitson, sent up congratulations: “You go, girl!”
Replied Williams: “Anybody could be in these boots.”
___ Online: NASA.