Astronauts Take Big Strides

Monday, March 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – In what's being billed as NASA's longest spacewalk, two astronauts rearranged the outside of the International Space Station on Sunday to make room for an Italian cargo carrier.

The excursion by crew members Jim Voss and Susan Helms was just four minutes shy of nine hours and entailed slow, deliberate work with cables and connectors, "a jungle of wires" as Mr. Voss called it.

"We knew this one was going to be tough," NASA's lead flight director, John Shannon, said when it was all over. The spacewalkers were "right on the edge" of what they could handle, he said, but performed admirably despite some initial butterfingers that put them an hour behind.

A plastic bag containing a hydrazine-detection kit floated out of space shuttle Discovery's hatch as the spacewalk got under way. "Uh, oh," Ms. Helms uttered. Mr. Voss managed to catch the bag.

Minutes later, Mr. Voss accidentally let go of a viselike device needed for a work platform. The 10- to 15-pound chunk of metal, about the size of a thick dictionary, drifted away and joined the thousands of pieces of junk orbiting Earth. NASA has a spare on board.

The main event was the relocation of a docking port on space station Alpha. The bulky cone had to be moved from one side of a module to another so the shuttle crew could plug the Italian-made cargo carrier into the vacated spot late Sunday night.

The reusable $150 million module, named Leonardo for Italy's Signor da Vinci, was packed with 5 tons of gear and ferried to the space station aboard Discovery. It will be returned to the shuttle for the March 17 undocking.

Mr. Voss and Ms. Helms disconnected all the cables on the docking port and removed an antenna to make room for Leonardo.

The two also installed equipment in advance of next month's delivery of Alpha's massive robot arm. They did not have time to complete all the wire hookups and left the job for two other shuttle astronauts who will conduct a spacewalk late Monday night.

Officials from Mission Control said NASA considers Sunday's spacewalk the longest under the record-keeping rules now in place. The previous record was set in 1992 by three astronauts who grabbed a wayward satellite. That spacewalk lasted eight hours and 29 minutes.