Railcar problems plague astronauts
Published: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 12:44 a.m.
CAPE CANAVERAL - A railcar crucial to the construction of the International Space Station stalled on its tracks Saturday, but a spacewalking astronaut managed to get it moving again.
Within minutes of venturing outside, John Herrington had discovered the obstruction: The railcar's cable-reel assembly was hung up on a radio antenna on the space station's newest girder.
Mission Control instructed Herrington to deploy the stowed antenna in hopes of removing the snag. At first, the antenna would not budge, but he finally freed it and cleared the path for the railcar.
"All right! Good job. Heroes both," astronaut Paul Lockhart radioed from inside the orbiting complex.
The spacewalk by Herrington and Michael Lopez-Alegria - their third in five days - had been planned all along so they could complete work on the newly installed $390 million girder.
Flight controllers initially suspected the railcar problem may have been caused by a momentary loss of computer data. But later, they said the railcar probably snagged on something while traveling down the tracks.
Astronauts inside the space station zoomed in on the area with cameras but didn't see anything unusual. So Mission Control asked the spacewalkers to check the railcar and two minicarts linked to it.
The $190 million railcar was empty when it abruptly stopped, after traveling about 45 feet, 10 feet short of its destination. It had just crossed onto the new girder, which was delivered by space shuttle Endeavour last week.
After a 5¶-hour interruption, the railcar resumed its trip down the tracks and finally reached its intended location. But in disappointing news for the astronauts Saturday night, Mission Control said a "software hiccup" prevented flight controllers from returning the railcar back to its desired starting position.
The space station's 58-foot arm was supposed to be maneuvered onto the railcar to serve as a crane during Saturday's spacewalk, but the plan was scrapped after all the difficulties. Herrington and Lopez-Alegria, visiting from Endeavour, ended up performing their work on the new girder without the use of the arm.
The astronauts had 33 clamps to install on joints in exterior air-conditioning lines to avoid pressure buildups. Lopez-Alegria immediately got started on the clamps, while Herrington, the first American Indian in space, was still struggling with the railcar.
Their spacewalk lasted seven hours, a little longer than planned.
The railcar will be necessary next year as a moving base for the robot arm so NASA can add more girders to the three already in place. This framework eventually will stretch 356 feet, from its current 134 feet, and support a network of solar wings and radiators.
Endeavour is supposed to undock from the space station Monday and return to Earth on Wednesday.
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