CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- Spacewalking astronauts triumphed over a stubborn bolt and installed a critical power-switching box at the International Space Station on Wednesday, reviving electrical systems.
Engineers on the ground and the astronauts in orbit scrambled over the weekend to devise makeshift tools to clean metal shavings from the bolt’s socket after last week’s failed effort. That outing was one of the longest spacewalks on record.
This time, NASA’s Sunita Williams and Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide were armed with a blue toothbrush, a wire brush and other tools.
“It’s been like living on the set of Apollo 13 for the past few days,” said Mission Control, referring to the 1970 effort to save the three astronauts on an aborted moon mission. “NASA does impossible pretty darn well.”
The problem had cut the amount of electrical power available to the orbiting lab, and a variety of equipment had to be turned off.
Although the space station remained stable, NASA was in a hurry to get the problem fixed because of the impending departure of the U.S. astronaut who operated the hefty robot arm from inside, Joseph Acaba. He’s due to return to Earth in a week and a half.
Altogether, the space station has four of the power-switching units, which relay electricity from the eight solar wings. Being down one unit meant the orbiting complex could draw power from only six wings.
The power store was further degraded over the weekend when, in an unrelated problem, a tripped circuit breaker prevented full access to yet another solar panel. That left the space station running on just five wings, a vulnerable situation.
Tension mounted in Mission Control as Wednesday’s spacewalk approached the four-hour mark and the power-switching unit had yet to be installed. NASA considered calling it quits but asked the astronauts whether they could keep going, given their progress. Both spacewalkers insisted on pressing ahead.
“My left hand just fell asleep because my fingers are crossed too long,” Mission Control said. “We’re holding our breath.”
Finally, four and a half hours into the spacewalk, Hoshide reported: “It is locked.”
Mission Control burst into applause. Soon afterward, Mission Control confirmed that the power-switching box was firmly in place and working properly.
Williams, a Navy captain making her sixth spacewalk, is now the world’s most experienced female spacewalker, with more than 40 hours spent out in the vacuum. The previous record-holder, Peggy Whitson, sent up congratulations: “You go, girl!”
Replied Williams: “Anybody could be in these boots.”