Spacewalkers get rid of station's toxic waste

Image: Astronaut Steve Bowen works outside the Qwest airlock of the International Space Station.
Astronaut Steve Bowen gets onboard the International Space Station's robot arm during his spacewalk on Wednesday, in an image from NASA TV.NASA TV / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Discovery's astronauts took one final spacewalk at the International Space Station on Wednesday to get the outpost squared away before the shuttle program ends.

Discovery is headed into retirement after this flight, and only two more shuttle trips remain, by Endeavour and then Atlantis.

Spacewalker Alvin Drew quickly headed to a broken pump and drained the last bit of ammonia left to make it safe for handling in case it's returned to Earth on the last shuttle mission this summer.

The toxic ammonia coolant — about 10 pounds' worth (4.5 kilograms) — was vented through a hose out to open space, away from the two spacewalkers. It took two minutes to empty the pump.

A few pieces of frozen ammonia appeared to float away. Mission Control asked if spacewalker Stephen Bowen encountered any of the bits of ice, and he replied that he had not. Controllers wanted to keep any ammonia residue from getting into the space station.

Drew was invigorated and working so fast that Mission Control cautioned him, barely an hour into the spacewalk, to slow down. He obliged as he carefully bagged the venting tool and then turned to other chores.

The two spacewalkers whittled down the entire to-do list, installing a rail car light and an outdoor robot's camera. They also removed an experiment platform and some insulation. It was a hodgepodge of relatively minor jobs that will leave the orbiting lab in the best possible condition once space shuttles stop flying.

They paused to snap pictures of NASA's launch site, as the shuttle-station complex sailed 220 miles (350 kilometers) above Cape Canaveral.

Thrilled with results
Flight director Royce Renfrew was thrilled with how well things went. The spacewalkers even managed to knock off some extra chores.

"I feel happy and contented," Renfrew told reporters Wednesday night. "All of our big objectives for the mission have been accomplished."

Overseeing the action from Mission Control was astronaut Timothy Kopra. He was supposed to be the lead spacewalker, but was hurt in a bicycle accident last month. Bowen replaced him.

"Tim, it is great to hear your voice," shuttle astronaut Michael Barratt called down.

"Likewise," replied Kopra, who hobbled into Mission Control on crutches.

Leak in spacesuit
The only major problem cropped up just before Wednesday's six-hour spacewalk. A leak in Bowen's suit had to be fixed before the astronauts could venture out for the second time in three days. Then as the spacewalk was winding down, the light on Drew's helmet came off and dangled from a tether as he went back in.

Discovery will remain at the space station until Sunday. The shuttle astronauts are staying an extra day to help outfit the new storage room installed Tuesday. There's a possibility that yet another bonus day might be added, which would stretch the mission to 13 days.

A humanoid robot — the first one in space — was carried up in the storage unit. It will remain boxed up until May, then put through a series of tests to see if it might help the space station crew with simple chores.

Once Discovery returns to Earth next week, the shuttle will be decommissioned and sent to the Smithsonian Institution for display.