Robotics shutdown briefly strands astronaut

2011-03-01 07:29

Cape Canaveral, Florida – A robotic system shutdown interrupted yesterday’s spacewalk outside the International Space Station, leaving an astronaut stuck with a 363-kilogram pump in his hands for nearly a half-hour.

Good thing it was weightless.

Spacewalker Stephen Bowen was in no danger, but it didn’t sound pleasant.

Mission Control asked if he was comfortable.

“I’m fine as long as it’s not too much longer,” Bowen radioed. “How much longer?”

Bowen was perched on a small platform at the end of the 17.7-metre robotic arm, used to carry spacewalking astronauts where they need to go.

The problem arose at the two-hour mark when a work station controlling the robot arm shut down. The astronauts operating the arm inside the space station rushed with all their manuals, notes and laptops to another computer station in another room.

It took a while to get the second station working. For nearly a half-hour, the arm was motionless, with Bowen stuck gripping the 1.5-by-1.2-metre broken cooling pump.

He dared not let go.

Bowen was told the trouble would be resolved soon. But it took several more minutes until the robot arm came back to life. Finally, the operation resumed and Bowen carried the pump to its new location on the exterior of the space station. He got help from fellow spacewalker Alvin Drew in latching the pump down.

Nasa officials later blamed a computer software glitch and said it had been corrected.

Despite the snag, Bowen and Drew managed to complete all their major chores, including prep work for installing a new storage room at the station. They even had time for an education experiment.

As the 6½-hour spacewalk wrapped up, Drew twisted the top of a small bottle, ridding it of air and filling it with the vacuum of space. Nasa calls the Japanese experiment “message in a bottle”.

There’s no actual message inside, but the bottle is signed by astronauts and will be put on display in Japan. It’s an effort by the Japanese Space Agency to raise public interest.

In a bit of space trivia, Drew became the world’s 200th spacewalker when he emerged from the 354-kilometre-high complex. The first was Soviet cosmonaut Alexi Leonov in 1965. Drew and Bowen will go back out tomorrow for one final spacewalk.

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