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Space Walking Astronauts Retract Stubborn Solar Panel

19 December 2006

Astronauts from the American space shuttle Discovery have freed a stuck solar array on the International Space Station. VOA's Sean Maroney reports from Washington on the current mission's final space walk.

Mission Specialists Robert Curbeam and Christer Fuglesang have successfully freed a solar array that was part of the space station's old power system.

The accordian-like array got stuck, last Wednesday, as U.S. space officials tried to retract it into a folded-shut position. The array's side guidewires were caught on the metal eyelets through which they run, leaving the array halfway retracted.

Monday's space walk was Curbeam's fourth for the current mission - the most of any astronaut during a single shuttle flight.

Managers with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration had not planned for a fourth space walk. However, they said they wanted to take advantage of extra astronauts to do the job, instead of leaving it to space station crew members.

NASA Official Tricia Mack told reporters that, although the space walk - known as an extravehicular activity or E.V.A - was not technically difficult, it was still a daunting task.

"What's challenging is doing it, having only a few days to come up with an entire E.V.A., based off the arm. Normally, we train for a year, year-and-a-half is a typical flow," she said.

In Monday's walk, Astronaut Robert Curbeam was attached to the space station's robotic arm by a foot tether, an apparatus he had not trained on leading up to the shuttle Discovery's launch.

Both he and fellow Astronaut Christer Fuglesang improvised in space by pulling guidewires, flipping metal eyelets, pushing panel hinges and even shaking the solar array panel, to free it for retraction.

"Okay guys, here comes the final retract command. Ready... ready... retract... Yes," he said.

The applause was short-lived, as the space walkers noticed that one of the guidewires had looped out, during the folding process. However, the astronauts were able to tighten it before latching the arrays.

Space Station Project Manager Kirk Shireman says his team learned from this mission.

"This flight, of course, we had the difficulty in retracting the arrays. We had never done it. And, it's the kind of thing that you can't model on the ground," he said. "You certainly can't test with it - the gravity effects and the low-tension values that we're using just makes it impossible to completely test it, so we learned a lot."

Shireman says the lessons will come in handy for NASA's missions next year, when crews deliver more solar arrays.

The shuttle Discovery is scheduled to depart from the space station Tuesday, one day later than planned, with a Florida landing scheduled for Friday.

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