Like any good handyman, Steve Robinson equipped himself with a set of tools before tackling a repair job. However, no utensils were necessary when the NASA astronaut fixed the space shuttle Discovery.
During a spacewalk that began this morning at 4:48 EDT, Mission Specialist Robinson ventured underneath the shuttle to work on the heat shield. A robotic arm attached to the International Space Station (ISS) hoisted a portable foot that carried him to the left side of Discovery’s belly. As the robotic arm positioned him, Robinson removed two gap fillers protruding between heat-shielding tiles.
Gap fillers are ceramic-coated fabric pieces used to fill small spaces and provide a cushion between the shuttle’s protective tiles. Thousands of gap fillers are located beneath each space shuttle. If they hadn’t been removed, the fillers may have generated unwanted heat and turbulence during re-entry, and NASA engineers weren’t willing to take any chances. Not having the tiles in place should not jeopardize re-entry.
During the operation, Robinson reported, “That [second gap filler] came out very easily … it looks like this big patient is cured.” The “surgeon” stowed both fillers and then photographed the orbiter for later analysis.
The project is more complicated than simply yanking the troublesome fillers from their slots. Discovery’s crew assisted with the repair. Mission Specialist Soichi Noguchi, also outside the shuttle, provided communications and visual support. While Mission Specialist Andy Thomas coordinated the spacewalk, Pilot Jim Kelly and Mission Specialist Wendy Lawrence operated the robotic arm.
This maintenance marks the first time NASA has attempted a repair of a shuttle’s exterior during orbit. The space agency developed the repair procedures in response to the February 2003 Columbia disaster.
Robinson and Noguchi also installed an external storage platform on the space station during the 6-hour spacewalk. Before returning to the payload bay, Robinson photographed the shuttle’s heat shield. This was the third spacewalk of STS-114.
Discovery is scheduled to return to Kennedy Space Center August 8.