Thursday, February 14, 2008
Astronauts Continue Work On Columbus Lab
Astronauts Work on Columbus Lab
With two of their three spacewalks completed, the astronauts aboard the linked shuttle-station complex focused Thursday on getting the new Columbus lab up and running.
NASA extended Atlantis' mission by a day on Wednesday to give the crew more time to work on the lab, Europe's main contribution to the international space station.
The activation process has been running a little behind because of computer problems, but flight directors believe they've fixed the glitch.
The crew woke up Thursday to "Consider Yourself" from the musical "Oliver!" Astronaut Stanley Love thanked his wife, children and extended family, who he joked "may be feeling there's one fewer Love on Earth this Valentine's Day."
"I'd like to assure them that it's great to be up here, and I'll be home soon," he said.
Love was one of two spacewalkers who helped install Columbus on Monday. He is scheduled to participate in the mission's third outing on Friday to attach a pair of science experiments to the outside of the European module.
In addition to spending time Thursday preparing for that spacewalk — and enjoying some much-needed off-duty time — the crew plans to chat with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Her countryman, astronaut Hans Schlegel, completed his first spacewalk on Wednesday after an illness forced mission managers to pull him from Monday's outing.
Looking and sounding fit, Schlegel and Rex Walheim completed their primary job halfway through the nearly seven-hour spacewalk: removing a depleted nitrogen tank from the space station and installing a full one weighing 550 pounds. The high-pressure nitrogen gas is needed to flush ammonia through the station's cooling lines.
Neither Schlegel nor anyone else at the European Space Agency or NASA will say what was wrong with him. Schlegel, 56, has said it's a private medical matter.
Atlantis will remain at the space station until Monday. That makes for a 13-day flight, with touchdown now set for Feb. 20. The shuttle's thermal shielding has been completely cleared for re-entry.
Zero gravity can be heavy burden
The astronauts aboard space shuttle Atlantis gleefully float tools and a miniature football in midair. They look like they're having fun.
They're also coping with the million-and-one annoyances of the weightless lifestyle. The truth about zero-g, as the astronauts call it, is that it's a major pain.
In weightlessness, "two things are easier" — carrying heavy items and fitting into small spaces — and "everything else is more difficult," says astronaut Scott Kelly, who last flew on the shuttle in 2007.
The problems posed by zero gravity can make it harder for the crew, especially rookies, to get things done. That's no small matter now that shuttle missions are jammed with so much work that the astronauts have little time for sleep and meals.
Wednesday, Atlantis astronauts Rex Walheim and Hans Schlegel contended with tools that wanted to drift away as the men made a six-hour, 45-minute spacewalk to upgrade the cooling system on the International Space Station.
It was the first spacewalk for Schlegel, who sat out an assigned spacewalk Monday because of an undisclosed illness. Astronaut Stanley Love took his place.
"You guys did an outstanding job today," spacewalk coordinator Alan Poindexter said from inside the shuttle as the spacewalk ended.
Zero gravity can complicate exotic activities such as a spacewalk, but doing even mundane chores "is a challenge," Atlantis commander Stephen Frick said before the flight. "It's really something we have to work with a lot."
During Frick's first flight, crewmate Walheim kept finding things Frick had lost, "so it's a good thing that I'm flying with Rex again, so he can fulfill that task," Frick joked.
Eating in zero gravity is so inconvenient — food easily drifts out of containers and splatters — that astronauts in orbit often skimp on food. Astronaut Charlie Hobaugh said after his 13-day shuttle flight in 2007 that's one reason he lost 8 pounds in orbit.
Other tasks that are easy on Earth and tricky in space:
•Tying your shoes. The astronauts on the International Space Station wear sneakers during their runs on the station's treadmill. At first, putting them on without floating away is a puzzle.
"You have to figure out how to hold yourself down while you use both hands and one foot to tie that shoe," astronaut Clay Anderson said after spending five months on the station in 2007.
•Moving from one place to another. Novices tend to shove off walls to get somewhere, then grab something to stop themselves. Often their bodies stop, but their feet keep going.
"I felt like the first two days in space, all I kept saying was, 'Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to kick you in the head,' " said astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper after her first shuttle mission in 2006.
•Handling electrical cables or other items that tend to coil. On Earth, if you run a power cord between an outlet and a piece of equipment, it lies flat.
In orbit, the cord "will float up and assume whatever coil shape it was in before and take up a whole bunch of (space) that you wanted to get into," astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria said after his 2006-2007 stint on the station.
•Using the bathroom. Astronauts don't go into detail, but they make it clear that the hoses and vacuums on space toilets leave something to be desired.
"You never really appreciate gravity till you think about going to the bathroom without it," station crewmember Dan Tani said in December. "Trust me, there are times when I really could use some gravity." He'll get it soon: he'll return to Earth on Atlantis, which is scheduled to return next Wednesday.
Astronauts train exhaustively, often for years, for their missions in space, but NASA can't train them to live in zero gravity. The best it can do is send rookies up in a jet that flies a series of upside-down-U-shaped curves. At the peak, passengers experience 25 to 30 seconds of weightlessness.
After that experience, "you think you know it all," Schlegel said before his flight. "Then you come into space and you realize, wow, (weightlessness) doesn't go away. It stays. … To some people, (adjusting) comes easy; to some people, it comes with more difficulties."