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Space station crew moves orbital doorway

Crew members on the International Space Station donned yellow construction helmets on Thursday and used a robotic crane to move a passageway for visiting spaceships and connecting modules.
/ Source: Reuters

Crew members on the International Space Station donned yellow construction helmets on Thursday and used a robotic crane to move a passageway for visiting spaceships and connecting modules.

The work was the most extensive assembly work on the space station attempted by the station's resident crew, without the help of visiting shuttle astronauts.

"Let's fly," said station commander Fyodor Yurchikhin as flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston told him to start moving the robotic arm.

Yurchikhin was assisted by flight engineers Clay Anderson and Oleg Kotov. All three men wore yellow hats adorned with a sticker of their crew patch while they took turns operating the crane to relocate the docking bridge.

The hats were gifts from the crew of the shuttle Endeavour, who left the station and returned to Earth last week.

Work was interrupted twice by alarms indicating the 8-foot (2.4-meter), cone-shaped docking port adapter was not fully unlatched. Flight controllers determined the alarms were faulty and told the crew to press ahead.

The relocation of the adapter will clear a space for the shuttle Discovery's crew to install a new connecting hub to the outpost in a mission slated for launch on Oct. 23.

That hub, called Harmony, will be the doorway to Europe's Columbus laboratory module and Japan's Kibo complex. NASA hopes to install Columbus in December and Kibo during three missions next year.

The U.S. agency needs to fly at least 11 more shuttle flights to complete space station construction by 2010, when the shuttles are to be retired.

While the station crew worked in orbit, another construction mission was under way at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Technicians were modifying a fuel tank set to fly on Discovery to avoid a minor but time-consuming problem that occurred during Endeavour's flight this month.

A piece of foam insulation flew off Endeavour's tank during the shuttle's launch on Aug. 8, striking the underside of the ship and damaging two heat-resistant tiles.

NASA considered repairing the damage during a spacewalk, but ultimately determined Endeavour would be safe to fly through the atmosphere for landing without modifications.

X-rays on the tank slated to fly on Discovery showed cracks in an underlying layer of insulation. NASA decided to remove and replace the foam in four areas affected by the damage and expects no delays in Discovery's launch.

Fuel tank foam insulation has been a big issue for NASA since a chunk broke off during the ill-fated flight of shuttle Columbia in 2003. The spacecraft was destroyed and its seven astronauts killed after its heat shield was damaged by the falling foam.