Image: Spacewalkers
Astronauts Piers Sellers and Mike Fossum (in a feet-first view) work inside the shuttle Discovery's payload bay during Wednesday's spacewalk.
updated 7/12/2006 5:51:30 PM ET 2006-07-12T21:51:30

Two spacewalkers sheepishly lost a spatula in orbit Wednesday. But NASA engineers didn’t mind much, because the two accomplished their main task of testing a method to apply emergency patches to a shuttle heat shield — and then some.

Discovery spacewalkers Piers Sellers and Michael Fossum improved on the method of applying a special mixture to repair the reinforced carbon leading edges of a space shuttle, using mock-ups in a suitcase in Discovery’s payload bay.

A crack allowed fiery gases to penetrate the space shuttle Columbia’s reinforced carbon wing during re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in 2003, destroying that shuttle and killing its seven astronauts.

The same peanut butter-like repair goo was used a year ago in a first test of the system, with mixed results. That test produced many bubbles that could allow killer heat to penetrate on re-entry. This time, initial results showed that some bubbles formed, but they didn’t join to become big, dangerous ones, said lead spacewalk officer Tomas Gonzalez-Torres.

The key difference? Pancakes, Gonzalez-Torres said.

Fossum and Sellers used a technique similar to flipping pancakes. They spread a thin layer of the mixture, then kept flipping it, Gonzalez-Torres.

Bubbling goo
At first, astronauts said the bubbles kept forming, but they were able to keep them to a minimum.

“It’s bubbling,” Sellers said at one point. “It’s growing. It’s scary-looking.”

The goo was messy, spattering the spacewalkers to the extent that Sellers told Fossum: “Mike, you look like a panda. You’ve got a few little spots.”

There was only one thing missing from the spacewalk: Sellers’ spatula.

It flew overboard, off the right side of the shuttle’s payload bay.

“No sign of the spatula. I think it’s gone, gone, gone,” Sellers said of the kitchen appliance, 14 inches long and 2 inches wide (36 by 5 centimeters).

When Sellers was nearing the finish of his extended seven-hour, 11-minute spacewalk, mission control teased him by making him count his spatulas. He still had five left, from a total of six.

“Rub it in, rub it in,” Sellers said.

It is rare for spacewalkers to lose such a tool, but “it is no hazard to us,” Gonzalez-Torres said. Nonetheless, military monitors of space debris were notified of the new hazard to track.

Spacewalkers earn praise
Gonzalez-Torres praised the duo for using the goo to repair five of eight mock test sites. The other three were there in case they had extra time to work, but they were sent to their next task.

The crew then took pictures of their repair work, as well as other parts of the shuttle and even each other, with a test infrared camera that detects heat. The idea was to see whether the camera, which can detect cracks about half an inch (1 centimeter) wide, is a useful inspection tool. Officials said they should have results Thursday.

Because they did so well, Fossum and Sellers earned bonus work and time in space. In an unscheduled “work-ahead,” they installed a handle on an ammonia tank to make it easier to move.

During the flight's three spacewalks, Sellers and Fossum logged 21½ hours outside, with Sellers moving up to fourth on the all-time NASA spacewalking list.

By the end of his journey outdoors, Sellers had had enough, saying it was “time for dinner and a shower.”

The entire crew of Discovery will get a day off Thursday before starting to wind up the mission, undocking from the international space station on Saturday and planning to return to Earth on Monday.

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