Astronaut, cosmonaut take spacewalk to install cosmic-debris shields

Friday, August 16th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ An American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut ventured outside the international space station on Friday to fortify their home against damaging bits of space junk.

It was the first spacewalk for Peggy Whitson, who's been living on the orbiting complex since June.

Whitson and her veteran commander, Valery Korzun, got off to a late start in installing the Russian cosmic-debris shields. They evidently forgot to open an oxygen valve in their spacesuits while getting dressed, and the air lock had to be repressurized so they could open their suits and fix the problem.

``This is not a very simple task, Valery, but it's possible,'' said Russian Mission Control.

Once the valves were properly set, Korzun reported a slight pressure leak in his spacesuit. The outfit proved to be fine, however.

By the time the spacewalkers finally opened the hatch, 250 miles above the South Atlantic, almost two hours had been wasted.

``Carefully,'' Korzun cautioned Whitson as they floated out. ``How do you feel?'' She laughed and replied that the view was beautiful.

Visiting shuttle astronauts delivered six metal shields to the space station in June and hung the 109-pound stack outside. It was a temporary location, and the actual installation was left to Whitson and Korzun.

Extra shielding is needed for the Russian-built service module that serves as the space station hub and crew quarters.

When the chamber was launched in 2000, it did not meet NASA safety standards for protection against potentially dangerous space junk. Russian officials promised to reinforce the hull over time to help prevent any possible penetrations; this is the first batch of shielding and will offer only slight improvement.

At least 17 more shields are to be launched, hopefully within a few years.

Next Friday, Korzun will take another spacewalk to perform more space station chores. But he will have a new partner: fellow Russian cosmonaut Sergei Treschev.

The three space station residents are supposed to return to Earth in November. Earlier this summer, their homecoming was delayed by at least one month because of cracked fuel lines discovered across NASA's shuttle fleet.