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Spacewalks step up pace of station assembly

A trio of spacewalks begins this week at the International Space Station to step up assembly before NASA shuttles stop flying in 2010.
/ Source: Reuters

A trio of spacewalks begins this week at the International Space Station to step up assembly before NASA shuttles stop flying in 2010.

Station commander Michael Lopez-Alegria and flight engineer Sunita Williams are set to make the first outing Wednesday.

Their main job is to attach the U.S.-made Destiny laboratory to a new cooling system installed at the half-built space station during the last shuttle flight, a round trip of 5.3 million miles, in December.

If time allows, they will photograph a solar panel that is due to be folded up during the next shuttle mission in March.

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“We’re going to be knocking out three, one right after another,” said lead spacewalk officer Glenda Laws. “That presents a lot of new challenges.”

Construction began in 1998 on the $100-billion space station, a venture by the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia and 11 participating nations of the European Space Agency, with Brazil and Italy as payload participants.

NASA, the U.S. space agency, plans to focus its station-based research on technologies for space exploration.

Scientists from the other countries hope experiments will lead to new drugs for cancer, diabetes, emphysema and immune system disorders. They also hope to develop new metal alloys and learn more about phenomena on Earth, such as hurricanes.

NASA previously reserved major construction jobs at the station for visiting astronauts, who arrive more freshly trained and in greater numbers than the resident crew.

But NASA managers have begun to shift tasks to the station team to ensure the most critical jobs get done during the remaining shuttle flights.

“We’re learning as we go,” said Derek Hassmann, a space station flight director. “This is the first time that we’ve tried a series of (spacewalks) of this magnitude” with the resident team.

Getting ready
The spacewalks will span just nine days, but managers said extra days could be scheduled if necessary.

Of the 30 previous U.S. station construction spacewalks, only six were made without a shuttle crew and those were spread out over four years, Hassmann said.

Upon completion of the work, plus a fourth spacewalk, Lopez-Alegria will become NASA’s most experienced spacewalker with 10 and Williams will lead the women’s list with four.

The biggest challenge is getting the crew ready.

Lopez-Alegria, who arrived at the station four months ago, completed his last spacewalk training in July. Williams is a bit fresher, having arrived less than two months ago.

The two have spent weeks reviewing videos, using virtual reality simulators and studying with ground control to hone their skills and add new tasks since their training.

The first two outings, each likely to take six hours, will be devoted to unhooking ammonia cooling lines on the Destiny laboratory and connecting the module to the new system.

The astronauts then will watch ground controllers retract panels no longer needed to dissipate heat. NASA hopes things go more smoothly than the retraction of the old solar array panel, which jammed repeatedly during the last shuttle flight.