Image: Computer-generated look at repair
A computer-generated image shows a spacewalker at the end of a 50-foot (17-meter) boom that's attached to the international space station's robotic arm, in position for repairing a damaged solar array. Discovery astronaut Scott Parazynski is due to perform this operation for real on Saturday.
updated 11/3/2007 12:37:03 AM ET 2007-11-03T04:37:03

The astronaut chosen to make emergency repairs on the space station’s ripped solar wing — a dangerous and unprecedented electrical job — is actually an emergency medical doctor and mountaineer whose specialty at NASA just happens to be spacewalks.

What’s more, Scott Parazynski is 6-foot-2 (188 centimeters tall) and has long arms, a lucky stroke since he’ll be working Saturday alongside a damaged electrical generator with hot wires possibly exposed.

“We have a bunch of challenges ... but the beauty of having Scott available to us is that it’s one piece that you don’t worry about,” flight director Derek Hassmann said Friday. “I cannot overstate the significance of his experience and just his approach to the job.”

To save the solar wing, Parazynski needs to clear whatever snagged the panels and caused the wing to tear while it was being unfurled Tuesday. He won’t know what he’s up against until he sees the damage up close.

As it is now, the wing poses a structural hazard for the international space station. The damage could worsen and the wing could become unstable, quite possibly forcing NASA to cut it loose and lose a vital power source for future laboratories.

That’s why NASA is willing to undertake this riskier and trickier than usual spacewalk before the shuttle Discovery undocks from the space station in just another few days. The shuttle is currently due to undock on Monday and return to Earth on Wednesday.

Complicating matters for NASA is a malfunctioning solar rotary joint on the opposite side of the space station. It’s needed to turn another set of solar wings toward the sun, but it’s gummed up with steel shavings and, for the most part, unusable.

For now, the torn wing is the priority. Because of the tight schedule, the work on the joint has been put off for another time. Also put off was a demonstration of a high-tech caulking gun and goo for mending shuttle thermal tiles, a technique that Parazynski helped develop.

Image: Power problems
NASA is dealing with two problems with the power-generating system on the international space station: a balky rotary joint on one side, and a ripped solar array on the other side.

This will be Parazynski’s fourth spacewalk during the current mission and the seventh of his 15-year astronaut career.

Parazynski, 46, who is married with a 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter, became an astronaut three years after graduating from Stanford Medical School. He said earlier this week that every spacewalk is, by nature, dangerous.

“You’re in your own personal spacecraft and you are relying upon the spacesuit hardware and on your own physical abilities,” he said.

Slideshow: Cool space views Parazynski and his spacewalking partner, Army Col. Douglas Wheelock, will wear partial mittens over their gloves for extra protection. Wheelock pierced the outer layer of a glove near the end of Tuesday’s spacewalk; it was the third time in less than a year that a spacewalker tore a glove on something sharp at the space station.

To shore up the wing, astronauts have devised attachments that have been nicknamed "cufflinks." Like the cufflinks that close up sleeves on shirts, the attachments could be slipped through grommets in the solar array to close up a tear — that is, if such a closure is judged necessary.

As for the electrical hazards, all of the metal parts on Parazynski’s spacesuit have been covered with insulating tape — triple-taped, in fact — as have all the tools that he’ll carry with him.

The solar panel will be teeming with more than 100 volts of electricity, possibly as much as 160 volts.

“It’s not the kind of thing that would burn you, but we could get conduction through the heart, let’s say, or mild shocks,” said David Wolf, the spacewalk branch chief for the astronaut office.

Before calling it a day Friday, Parazynski asked for another hookup with spacewalking experts at Mission Control, saying he still had questions. Controllers told him they could not come up with a wire on board for him to practice a fraying technique he may need Saturday.

Parazynski told them not to worry, that he’s pretty good at fraying wires “having done a lot of home wiring projects myself.”

“Just use your magic on this one the same way,” Mission Control replied.

This report was supplemented by information from

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