Image: Spacewalker
AP
NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio (bottom center), is seen working near the Quest airlock during the mission's third and final session of extravehicular activity.
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updated 4/15/2010 8:38:41 PM ET 2010-04-16T00:38:41

After struggling for hours with a balky latching system, shuttle Discovery's astronauts successfully removed a cargo carrier from the International Space Station on Thursday.

They used a giant robot arm to move the compartment close to Discovery's payload bay. Because it was so late in the crew's day, Mission Control may put off until Friday the actual stowage of the cargo carrier aboard the shuttle.

"Good job, guys," Mission Control said as the cargo carrier came unlatched late Thursday afternoon.

"Thanks for making it easy," one of the spacemen replied.

The astronauts stayed up late to accomplish the job. They spent virtually all day dealing with the troublesome latching system.

The cargo carrier, filled with trash and old equipment, needs to return to Earth aboard Discovery so it can be outfitted and fly back up in September on the last shuttle flight.

Earlier Thursday, Mission Control managed to clear another space station problem, at least for the time being. Managers ruled out the need for an emergency spacewalk by the shuttle crew to fix a stuck valve in a cooling loop; that would have required a flight extension for Discovery.

The valve repairs can wait until after Discovery leaves, engineers concluded following two days of analysis.

The latest problem was with one of the control panels that send commands to release the bolts that lock the cargo carrier in place on the space station. Flight controllers noticed strange electrical signals coming from the panels and, indeed, the astronauts found a sheared screw. The astronauts taped the screw in place and double-and even triple-checked all the electrical connectors.

Controllers huddled in Mission Control as the problem dragged on, apologizing to the astronauts for the slow step-by-step instructions.

"I'm going to let you know that in my line of sight right now, I have seven flight directors talking about this," Mission Control radioed.

"Wow, that sounds like a party, dude," Anderson replied.

The cargo carrier flew up on Discovery, filled with fresh station supplies and science experiments. The next time the chamber flies, it's supposed to remain permanently at the space station and serve as an extra closet.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014

As for the jammed valve, engineers on the ground determined that the space station can operate fine for the next few weeks with the jammed nitrogen valve, a critical part of the cooling system. That gives them more time to figure out how to resolve the problem.

On Wednesday, Mission managers had considered adding a fourth spacewalk to Discovery's mission to address the problem.

If flight controllers cannot get the valve to open by remote control, the space station crew will have to perform a spacewalk to replace the entire nitrogen assembly. Nitrogen is needed to pressurize the tank full of ammonia coolant that was installed by the shuttle crew earlier this week

Mission Control said it's too soon to know when those spacewalking repairs might occur. Space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to arrive at the space station in mid-May with more spare parts and a small Russian lab. The valve job, if required, could take place before, during or even after that mission, officials said.

The valve failed to open Tuesday after spacewalking astronauts finished hooking up the new ammonia tank.

Discovery is scheduled to undock from the space station Saturday and return to Earth on Monday.

Back at NASA's launch and landing site, meanwhile, hundreds of journalists and dignitaries gathered for an afternoon visit by President Barack Obama.

Obama pitched his post-shuttle plans for NASA, including development of a rescue capsule for space station astronauts and eventual expeditions to an asteroid and Mars — in his lifetime.

Once Discovery lands, only three shuttle flights will be left. NASA hopes to wrap up the last mission — along with space station construction — by the end of September.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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