CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A riskier-than-usual spacewalk outside the international space station was cut short Thursday night because of a malfunction that left one of the two crewmen with a warm, damp suit.
Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri made it safely back inside despite the problem with his spacesuit.
Kaleri and American astronaut Michael Foale had left the space station empty when they ventured out, the first time the 5-year-old outpost had ever been unattended during a spacewalk. It was necessitated by the grounding of NASA’s shuttle fleet in the wake of the Columbia accident.
Everything went well until three hours into the spacewalk, when Kaleri reported that the inside of his helmet was wet. Flight controllers immediately suspected a breakdown of the device that is supposed to regulate temperature and remove condensation.
“It’s strangely warm,” Kaleri said. A few minutes later, he radioed: “It’s amazing. I have rain inside the helmet. I have water on the visor.”
Russian space officials decided to end the spacewalk early and advised Kaleri not to exert himself. Foale continued working as Kaleri rested. The cosmonaut said he could see well through the visor, even though it had a water film.
“I’m not moving too fast so I don’t overheat,” Kaleri said as he made his way to the hatch. Foale soon joined him in the air lock, and they closed the hatch.
The crewmen managed to complete half their work — primarily installing new scientific experiments outside — before Kaleri’s suit began malfunctioning. The spacewalk was supposed to go 5½ hours; it lasted three hours and 55 minutes.
Bent tube discovered
Foale inspected Kaleri’s spacesuit once they were back inside. The cosmonaut was glad to have the suit off. “I feel better now. I feel cooler,” he said.
The men quickly discovered that one of the tubes through which water flows to cool the suit, in the stomach area, was bent. Kaleri straightened the tube and water began flowing through it. He said he had no idea how the tube became bent.
The cooling system is crucial to keep the spacesuit at a comfortable temperature. Spacewalkers heat up quickly and work up a sweat on the daylight side of Earth.
Two spare Russian spacesuits are aboard that Kaleri could use if he and Foale have to go out again. However, no more spacewalks are scheduled for their mission. Foale’s Russian suit worked fine.
Throughout the excursion, flight controllers in Houston and Moscow watched over all the systems orbiting 230 miles (370 kilometers) up and were prepared, after months of safety analyses, to call the veteran spacewalkers back in if a fire, decompression or some other emergency arose. What ended up happening — a suit malfunction — was not nearly as critical but still worrisome, especially with no one inside to help.
Normally, a third crew member stays inside during a spacewalk to oversee the systems, watch over the two outside and help them once they re-enter. But with the shuttle fleet grounded due to the Columbia tragedy, the space station has only a two-man crew to conserve supplies.
With shuttle flights off until next spring at the earliest, an initially uneasy NASA agreed with the Russian Space Agency that it could not keep waiting for a three-person crew in order to perform a spacewalk.
For decades, the Russians left their Salyut and Mir space stations unattended during spacewalks.
Before the spacesuit malfunction, Foale and Kaleri took out trays of scientific samples to replace ones that had been hanging outside for more than two years to gauge the effects of space debris and other cosmic wear and tear. They also put out a radiation-measuring doll.
The space doll — a “matryoshka,” or traditional Russian nesting doll — is actually a close-to-lifesize head and torso made of soft material to simulate human tissue, with embedded sensors to measure radiation exposure.
Scientists want to know how much solar radiation a spacewalker receives, critical information as NASA strives to meet President Bush’s goal of sending astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars.
The spacewalkers also photographed the area where they heard a strange metallic noise last November, to see if space junk caused any damage. But they did not have time to replace a thruster contamination-measuring kit or relocate navigational reflectors for a new unmanned cargo ship due to arrive next year.
Foale and Kaleri have been aboard the space station since October. They will be replaced in April by a two-man crew that expects to perform two spacewalks.
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