Space station astronauts succeed with repair work

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - August 11, 2010

Their previous spacewalk bid to restore full cooling to the orbiting lab last weekend was thwarted by a large ammonia leak.

This time, to everyone's relief, there was no burst of toxic ammonia from a stubborn connector, just a few frozen flakes that drifted harmlessly away.

"That's great news," Wheelock reported.

"That's awesome news," Mission Control agreed.

The space station has been operating with only half its usual cooling capability since an ammonia coolant pump failed 1½ weeks ago. Science research is on hold and unnecessary equipment is off until the pump can be replaced, an urgent repair job that's considered one of the most challenging in the 12-year history of the orbiting lab. The cooling system is crucial for keeping electronics from overheating.

It was five hours into the spacewalk before the astronauts succeeded in removing the broken 780-pound pump, about the size of a bathtub. There was barely time for just a few more chores; a spare pump will be installed during a third spacewalk Sunday.

Making his second spacewalk in five days, Wheelock had to yank the jammed connector back and forth for several seconds before it popped off the failed pump, which could not be removed until that last hose was unhooked. He shook so hard with his gloved hands that the TV images beamed down from his helmet camera were bumpy and full of static.

"We didn't tell the guys inside to hold on when you did that," Mission Control joked.

Before Wednesday's spacewalk, flight controllers lowered the pressure in the disabled cooling line - one of two identical loops. That made all the difference. There was none of the major leakage that occurred during Saturday's spacewalk. That leak developed around the jammed connector; the spacewalkers had to hammer the connector loose, then plug it back in to stop the stream of ammonia.

As it turns out, there was no need Wednesday for the astronauts to isolate the troublesome connector by closing off other valves, or by venting out residual ammonia. Instead, Caldwell Dyson jumped ahead and unhooked power and data cables on the pump.

"My dad would be proud," Caldwell Dyson said as she released the final cable. She helped her electrician father when she was young.

All that paved the way for the unbolting of the failed pump. Wheelock hung on tight to the pump - a boxy 5 1/2 feet by 4 feet by 3 feet - as he was maneuvered away on the end of the space station's robot arm. The pump was secured to a temporary storage location.

"I'm going to say goodbye to my old buddy," Wheelock said, referring to the pump's troublesome connector.

NASA originally figured two spacewalks would suffice. The jammed connector and ammonia leak on the first outing set everything back, however, and made a third outing necessary.

Since the July 31 malfunction, the space station has had to get by on a single cooling loop. NASA wants the second line up and running again as soon as possible, in case the first one ends up broken, too. That would leave the orbiting lab in a precarious position, with only a limited amount of time for emergency repairs before the crew would have to abandon ship.

Three Americans and three Russians are on board. Their safety has not been jeopardized by the cooling system trouble, and their comfort has not been compromised as they work and live 220 miles above Earth.

Engineers suspect an electrical short in the pump led to the shutdown.

The space station is meant to continue working until 2020. NASA will have to rely on Russia and other countries for crew and cargo transport once the shuttle fleet is retired next year.

Only two shuttle visits remain, in November and February 2011. A third shuttle mission is under consideration for next summer.



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