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Shuttle’s mission extended for repairs

As spacewalkers finished connecting a new power-generating structure to the international space station, NASA announced Monday that the space shuttle Atlantis' mission would be extended by two days to fix a peeled-back thermal blanket.
Spacewalker Danny Olivas works to connect a new power-producing segment on the international space station on Monday. The feet of fellow spacewalker James Reilly can be seen sticking up on the right side of the image.
Spacewalker Danny Olivas works to connect a new power-producing segment on the international space station on Monday. The feet of fellow spacewalker James Reilly can be seen sticking up on the right side of the image.NASA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Astronauts will try to fix a thermal blanket that peeled back during Atlantis’ launch, extending the space shuttle’s mission from 11 to 13 days, NASA managers said Monday.

No decision had been made on whether the loosened blanket, covering a 4-by-6-inch (10-by-15-centimeter) area over a pod for engines, will be repaired during a previously planned third spacewalk or a fourth, extra one, managers said.

The loosened blanket was discovered Saturday during an inspection. Although 11 previous shuttle flights have had blanket or tile damage in that area of the spacecraft without any problems, managers were told by engineers, “’We think we’re going to have some damage ... if you don’t go off and fix this,”’ said John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team.

Engineers think the blanket was loosened by aerodynamic forces during launch, not by being hit by a piece of debris during liftoff. The rest of the vehicle appeared to be in fine shape, NASA said.

Engineers didn’t think the intense heat when the shuttle re-enters Earth’s atmosphere could burn through the graphite structure underneath the blanket and jeopardize the spacecraft or the lives of astronauts, but they worried it might cause some damage that would require repairs on the ground.

With three additional shuttle flights to the space station planned this year, NASA can’t afford any delays. During the repair, an astronaut will probably reach the blanket, located near Atlantis’ tail, by attaching himself to the end of the shuttle’s robotic arm and boom.

“We think that if ... we can secure it somehow, we don’t have to worry about that blanket anymore,” Shannon said.

35,000-pound structure added
While mission managers debated fixing the thermal blanket, two astronauts floated outside the international space station Monday to begin connecting the orbiting outpost’s newest addition: a 35,000-pound (16-metric-ton) segment that will increase its power capability.

This NASA tv image obtained 10 June, 2007 shows a tear in the thermal blanket on the space shuttle Atlantis. Astronauts inspected the outside of space shuttle for any damage 09 June 2007 and discovered the four-inch tear in some of the protective heat resistant material near the tail of Atlantis. That area covers the top surface of the pod that contains some of Atlantis's engines used to steer in space. The area where the damage is receives much less heat than the lower part of the shuttle when it comes back to Earth. Initial reviews suggest the damage will not cause any problems for the crew, but engineers will examine still pictures and video images to make sure. AFP PHOTO/HO/NASA TV = GETTY OUT = (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)- / AFP

The start of the spacewalk was delayed by more than an hour because the four spinning gyroscopes that keep the space station properly positioned became overloaded. Space shuttle Atlantis was used to help control the station’s orientation until the gyroscopes were able to take over again.

This pushed back efforts by astronauts on the space station to place the new segment with the station’s robotic arm. The new segment needed to be securely attached before the spacewalkers could begin making power and data connections.

Astronauts James Reilly, on his fourth spacewalk, and Danny Olivas, on his first, began their spacewalk at 4:02 p.m. ET as the space station orbited 208 miles (333 kilometers) over the southern Pacific Ocean. It ended six hours and 15 minutes later.

Reilly and Olivas removed locks and restraints on the truss segment, which was attached earlier Monday to the station’s girderlike backbone.

The spacewalkers removed the restraints so solar arrays inside the segment can be deployed the next day. The new solar arrays will add about 14 kilowatts of power-generating capability to the station.

Mission accomplished
As the spacewalkers made the various power and data connections, Mission Control activated the truss segment.

“We accomplished all of the major objectives,” Joel Montalbano, mission operations representative, said at a news conference Monday.

Installation and activation of the new segment won’t be completed until a second spacewalk on Wednesday.

As they worked, Reilly and Olivas planned to periodically check their gloves. A new spacewalking procedure requires astronauts to examine their gloves after every task to make sure there are no cuts in them.

“My gloves look good; no damage,” Olivas said at one point.

Reilly and Olivas also made sure they didn’t lose any tools or bolts to the void of space. Astronauts lost bolts during two spacewalks in September when a similar truss segment was installed.

Clayton Anderson, who went up aboard Atlantis, has replaced Sunita Williams as the U.S. resident on the space station.

Williams will return to Earth aboard Atlantis next week after more than six months in space.