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Astronauts finish final spacewalk of mission

Two astronauts are safely back inside the international space station after finishing a spacewalk to clean and lube a jammed solar-wing rotary joint.
Image: Bowen on spacewalk
NASA astronaut Stephen Bowen works on the exterior of the international space station during Monday's spacewalk.NASA TV
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two astronauts are safely back inside the international space station after finishing a spacewalk to clean and lube a jammed solar-wing rotary joint.

Spacewalkers Stephen Bowen and Shane Kimbrough ended their six-hour, seven-minute spacewalk by climbing back inside a space station airlock.

It was the fourth and final spacewalk during space shuttle Endeavour's nearly two-week visit to the space station.

When the repairs to the gummed-up joint were deemed officially complete, Mission Control radioed up its applause.

"Finally," Bowen exclaimed. "Thanks for your work," replied Mission Control, erupting in laughter.

Just before Monday's spacewalk began, NASA added a 16th day to space shuttle Endeavour's mission. Managers wanted to give the astronauts more time to fix a machine that's supposed to turn urine into drinking water.

The $154 million recycling equipment was delivered by Endeavour, along with other home makeover items needed to expand the space station crew to six next year.

The spacewalk, which lasted six hours and seven minutes, was the fourth for Endeavour's astronauts. Greasy repair work on the clogged joint consumed most of their time.

The rotary joint on the right side of the space station hasn't worked properly for more than a year, preventing the solar wings on that side from pointing automatically toward the sun. Grinding parts left the joint full of metal shavings.

Almost all the gritty mess was cleaned up during the first three spacewalks and new bearings were put in. Bowen finished the job Monday, paving the way for a test of the newly repaired joint Tuesday. Regardless of the outcome, more spacewalks are planned on later missions for a better, longer-term fix.

An identical joint on the left side of the orbiting complex has worked perfectly, but NASA wanted the spacewalkers to grease it up to ensure its longevity. Once they opened up this joint, the astronauts noticed wear on some parts.

The dialogue between the spacewalkers and the astronauts inside was technical and full of numbers denoting the various panels on the joints. "Too many numbers," one of the spacewalkers grumbled.

As they have before, the spacewalkers had to share grease guns 225 miles (360 kilometers) up. There was one less tool kit after a sack full of grease guns and other items floated away on the first spacewalk last Tuesday. With the aid of telescopes, satellite-spotters saw the sack zoom through the sky.

Work continues on urine processor
Inside the space station, meanwhile, skipper Mike Fincke performed more repair work on the new urine processor.

NASA was hoping for a full four-hour test run Monday following Fincke's tinkering. On Sunday, the urine processor shut down after operating less than three hours; before, it never even made it that far.

When informed more urine might be needed, Fincke said, "Well, we've got a very adequate supply of yesterday's coffee to help." Mission Control then joked: "We'll see if we need to add some Diet Coke to the plan." For the record, there is no Diet Coke — or any other soda — up there.

The astronauts have managed to collect samples of the recycled water for return to Earth aboard Endeavour, relying mostly on converted condensation. NASA would prefer more urine in the mix; that's the way the system was designed.

No one can drink the recycled water until tests show it's safe. Additional samples will be returned on the next space shuttle flight in February, to confirm everything is working properly. NASA's goal is to have six people living on the space station by June.

The extra day in space for Endeavour now means that the two crews — eight men and two women — will celebrate Thanksgiving together and not part company until Friday. Endeavour's touchdown is now scheduled for Sunday.