HOUSTON – Flight controllers were revamping plans Wednesday for the remaining spacewalks planned during space shuttle Endeavour's visit to the international space station, after a crucial tool bag floated out to space during a repair trip.
The briefcase-sized tool bag drifted away from astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper on Tuesday as she cleaned and lubed a gummed-up joint on a wing of solar panels on the space station. She and fellow astronaut Stephen Bowen were midway through the first of four spacewalks planned for the mission. The tool bag was one of the largest items ever lost by a spacewalker.
As Stefanyshyn-Piper cleaned up a large gob of grease that seeped from a gun used to lubricate the joint, the tool case somehow became untethered from a larger bag and floated away along with a pair of grease guns, wipes and a putty knife attached to it.
"What it boils down to is all it takes is one small mistake for a tether not to be hooked up quite correctly or to slip off, and that's what happened here," said lead spacewalk officer John Ray.
Stefanyshyn-Piper and Bowen finished the spacewalk in almost seven hours by sharing tools from Bowen's bag. Ray noted that Stefanyshyn-Piper showed "real character and great discipline" by continuing on. She was the first woman to be assigned as lead spacewalker for a shuttle flight.
"Despite my little hiccup, or major hiccup, I think we did a good job out there," Stefanyshyn-Piper said after returning to the space station.
Flight controllers are considering having the two spacewalkers share Bowen's pair of grease guns for the three remaining spacewalks on Thursday, Saturday and Monday. They could also use caulking guns meant for repairing the space shuttle. Another option is to have one spacewalker clean the joint while the other uses the grease gun to lubricate it.
For more than a year, the joint has been unable to automatically point the right-side solar wings toward the sun for maximum energy production.
Officials weren't worried the bag would hit the space station or the docked space shuttle because by late Tuesday it already was 2 1/2 miles in front of the orbiting complex, said flight director Ginger Kerrick.
"It is definitely moving away with every orbit," Kerrick said.
Inside the space station, crew members were so ahead of schedule in moving equipment delivered by Endeavour that shuttle flight planners were contemplating skipping an extra day at the outpost orbiting 220 miles above Earth.
The equipment includes a recycling system that converts urine into water, an extra bathroom, kitchenette, two bedrooms, an exercise machine and refrigerator that will allow space station residents to enjoy cold drinks for the first time. And the extra gear will allow the space station's crew to double to six next year.
The water recycling system was to be hooked up late Wednesday, and the first batch of urine would run through the system later in the week. Samples will be flown back to Earth for safety tests before astronauts can use it.
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