Video: NASA green-lights spacewalk jerry-rigging

updated 5/18/2009 1:40:26 AM ET 2009-05-18T05:40:26

Specially designed tools couldn't dislodge a balky bolt interfering with repairs Sunday at the Hubble Space Telescope. So spacewalkers took an approach more familiar to people puttering around down on Earth: brute force.

And it worked. But it set spacewalkers so far behind that they couldn't get all their tasks done.

Atlantis astronaut Michael Massimino couldn't remove an 1.25-inch-long (3-centimeter) bolt attaching a hand rail to the outside of a scientific instrument he needed to fix. The rail had to be removed or at least bent out of the way.

That was only the beginning of a hard-luck day. The balky bolt and other tiny problems put spacewalkers so far behind schedule that they had to abandon the second part of their spacewalk: replacing some worn insulation on the telescope.

NASA, which prides itself on being prepared, had not anticipated a bolt problem while removing the foot-and-a-half-long (45-centimeter-long) hand rail, said lead flight controller Tony Ceccacci.

Astronomers, whose nerves were tried by the spacewalk, were still happy because it was the second straight resurrection of a much-used but dead scientific device. "The science capabilities we've been given today are fabulous," Jennifer Wiseman, NASA's chief of stellar astrophysics said at a late Sunday news conference. "It's almost like starting with a brand-new observatory."

The marathon spacewalk by Massimino and Michael Good took so long — just more than eight hours — that it was the sixth longest U.S. spacewalk and a few minutes longer than the one Friday.

Tale of a tug
When several tries with different expensive tools couldn't remove the stripped-out bolt, Mission Control in Houston told Massimino to go for the less precise yank.

At Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, engineers twice tested that pull on a mock-up before Massimino was told to use his muscles. "You hope you don't get to the point where you just close your eyes and pull and hope nothing (bad) happens," said James Cooper, the Goddard mechanical systems manager for the repair mission. "But we had run out of other options."

Astronauts were careful to tape pieces so they wouldn't fly away and become potential missiles. "This is like tying branches together in Boy Scouts," Good said.

Since Atlantis was out of video contact 350 miles (560 kilometers) above Earth, controllers in Houston could only listen as Massimino took a breath and pulled. There was a moment of silence, and then Massimino calmly said: "Disposal bag, please."

After nearly two hours of work on the balky bolt, astronauts went back to the plan to bring the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, or STIS, back from the dead. Early test results showed that the spectrograph, disabled by a power failure five years ago, was brought back to life. When further tests started, a glitch popped up, but NASA officials were confident the device would be fine.

Big jobs with little problems
Three of the four Hubble spacewalks so far have been delayed by niggling problems, like stubborn bolts and objects that wouldn't fit. A fifth and final spacewalk is set for Monday.

Massimino's run of bad luck continued even after the battle of the bolt. While trying to install a special plate to remove 111 tiny screws that held the instrument cover in place, a tool's battery died. It took more than half an hour for him to go back to the shuttle, get a charged-up spare and recharge his oxygen supply as well.

By the time Massimino replaced the internal electronics power supply card in the spectrograph, it was just about the originally scheduled time for the end of the spacewalk. And more than 90 minutes of clean-up and close-out work remained.

So spacewalk coordinators on the ground decided that the second part of Sunday's task, the insulation, had to be put off until Monday, if possible. All the work may not get done Monday, but at least part will be attempted, Mission Control said.

"We're very proud of you," Atlantis astronaut John Grunsfeld told the weary spacewalkers.

Last to touch Hubble?
Grunsfeld and Andrew Feustel will not only pick up some of their work Monday, but they will be the last people to touch the 19-year-old observatory. On Tuesday, Atlantis will release Hubble, which NASA hopes will keep operating for another five to 10 years, before it is steered to a watery grave.

Slideshow: The Hubble Story Grunsfeld and Feustel revived Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys during their Saturday spacewalk. Mission Control told the crew two of the three science channels on the repaired camera were working again. The third channel, designed for high-resolution imagery, couldn't be revived — but scientists said that was a little-used part of the instrument.

When NASA planned this mission, officials said it would be a success if either of the two dead instruments could be revived. With Saturday's camera remedy, fixing STIS is a bonus. The light-separating spectrograph has helped find black holes and examine the atmosphere of planets outside our solar system.

On Saturday, Grunsfeld and Feustel installed a new spectrograph that looks deep into the early universe. The Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, or COS, is expected to map the universe's largest-scale structure, known as the "cosmic web," and shed light on the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy.

The new and the old spectrographs are complementary: COS is more sensitive but limited to the ultraviolet spectrum, while STIS can detect a wider range of wavelengths and produce imagery.

In addition to installing COS and repairing the Advanced Camera for Surveys and STIS, spacewalkers have given Hubble a powerful new camera called Wide Field Camera 3. They've also replaced the space telescope's gyroscopes, a data-handling unit and some of its batteries.

During Monday's final spacewalk, astronauts are scheduled to replace Hubble's fine guidance sensors and the rest of its batteries, and place the insulation blankets on the telescope's exterior.

This final mission to Hubble cost more than $1 billion, about a tenth of the investment made in the telescope since its launch in 1990.

This report was supplemented by msnbc.com.

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