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Discovery Gets a Nip and a Tuck in Space


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Hundreds of miles above Earth today, an astronaut plucked loose two pieces of fabric from the underside of the space shuttle Discovery. Engineers were afraid the fabric might disturb the flow of air around the shuttle during re-entry, and they did not want to subject the shuttle's underside or wings to any unnecessary heat. The space walk marked the first time an astronaut had ventured under the space shuttle. It was a success for the space program and, also, a reminder of how fragile and primitive space travel still is. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


Astronaut Stephen Robinson stood on the end of the space station's robotic arm, his feet locked in place, tethers to keep him from floating away if he came loose. Robinson looked like a man on the end of a cherry picker ready to fix a high-voltage line, except that he was 220 miles above Australia. Crew member Andy Thomas reminded Robinson of the list of cautions.

Mr. ANDY THOMAS (Astronaut): They're fairly self-evident, of course. Remember that broken or damaged tile RCG is going to be sharp, so keep your hands off it.


Mr. THOMAS: I think it goes without saying that we don't want to see inadvertent contact with tile or the belly of the orbiter.

KESTENBAUM: Another astronaut, James Kelly, steered the robotic arm closer to the patchwork of delicate tiles under the shuttle's nose. Robinson said the shuttle's belly looked like a work of art. In front of him, the first piece of fabric stuck between two tiles.

Mr. ROBINSON: I am about eight feet, maybe seven feet, looking just about straight down on it; it's over to my right by just six or seven inches. It looks to be close to three inches on one side and about an inch and a half on the other side. The corner looks like it has been bent over and then flipped back up in the vacuum. Vegas, I'm ready to go in and get it when you are.

KESTENBAUM: The fabric is tough. There are over a thousand pieces of it on the shuttle. They fit between the tiles, so the tiles don't rub up against each other as the shuttle vibrates and shakes during launch. The robot arm carried Stephen Robinson closer.

(Soundbite of robotic arm moving)

Mr. ROBINSON: Good motion.

KESTENBAUM: Robinson looked a bit like a robot himself: bulky space suit, arms out in front, motionless.

Mr. ROBINSON: Three, two, one, stop motion.

Unidentified Man: Stop motion. And if you're ready, we'll go brakes on.

Mr. ROBINSON: I'm not ready. I'd like to go towards my feet by one foot.

KESTENBAUM: Robinson was carrying forceps to grab the cloth; also, a hacksaw in case he needed to cut it. But, as predicted, he didn't end up needing any of that. He just used his fingers.

Mr. ROBINSON: OK, I'm grasping it and I'm pulling. It's coming out really easily.

KESTENBAUM: He held the cloth in his hand for a minute. It was about the size of a bookmark.

Mr. ROBINSON: OK, that piece is thrown in my trash bag.

KESTENBAUM: And Robinson easily pulled out the second piece, a mouse removing a thorn from the paw of the lion. At the end he declared, `It looks like this big patient is cured.' Aside from that, everyone spoke in even, measured tones. Paul Hill, the lead flight director for the mission, said he was relieved. He spoke afterward at a press conference in Houston.

Mr. PAUL HILL (Lead Mission Flight Director): I would have told you yesterday I know this is going to be a piece of cake. But when we sent him out there to do it, I had a whole different level of concern, because now we really have Steve out there, we really have him on the end of the station arm, and we're really putting him under the vehicle.' So when he pulled that first gap filler out and it came right out, I think he could probably hear the sigh of relief throughout the building over there. And it definitely felt like, `The rest is downhill from here.'

KESTENBAUM: There is one more possible bump; it is actually a bump just below one of the shuttle's windows, right by where Commander Eileen Collins sits, above the D in Discovery written on the shuttle's side. The bump appears to be insulation material that has puffed out. Engineers aren't sure if it's a problem. NASA has assembled what one official called a large room of experts to ponder it and think about maybe adding one more space walk to deal with it. David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.