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A reality check on dreams for space: the repairs

Saturday's arduous spacewalk to repair a solar panel at the space station is a reminder of the challenges inherent in maintaining new structures 'out there.'

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 5, 2007

Saturday's spacewalk to fix a ripped solar panel on the International Space Station might be likened to threading cords through grommets of a camping tarp – except that the "tarp" was gently waving and electrically charged and the "repairman" was standing on the top rung of a stepladder attached to another stepladder.

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The repair means the panels will be able to provide electricity for the space station. But it also points to the vital role that on-orbit maintenance will play – and the exacting demands it imposes – as visionaries set their sights on outposts and factories on the moon or Mars or on hotels and commercial laboratories orbiting high above Earth.

For engineers, the long-term challenge is to design simpler, more forgiving hardware for use in space. But for those dreaming of living on and beyond low-Earth orbit, Saturday's spacewalk is a reality check about what it takes to keep deep-space facilities running – and about the risks to people and investments if repairs fail.

The solar-panel spacewalk was "really kind of a wake-up call," says Adam Bruckner, who heads the aeronautics and astronautics department in the University of Washington's College of Engineering. Concepts for colonizing the moon or for commercial facilities on orbit "are interesting," he says, "but when you actually ... think about doing it over there, a lot of the maintenance ... and operational problems have been swept under the rug."

As reality TV, "Survivor" has nothing on Saturday's webcast of the tense, seven-hour spacewalk by astronauts Scott Parazynski and Col. Douglas Wheelock. Earlier in the week, the shuttle and station crews had moved a solar-panel assembly from a temporary spot on the ISS to its permanent location at one end of the station's backbone, or truss. As the space-station crew tried to unfurl the panels on Oct. 30, segments of one of the assembly's four wing-like arrays snagged and ripped, halting the deployment.

From engineers on the ground devising a repair strategy to Dr. Parazynski himself, the repair effort stretched everyone and everything to their limits, notes Derek Hassmann, the lead flight director for the shuttle mission.

Parazynski made the repairs farther from the airlock than any astronaut had ever been, his boots locked onto an extension at the end of a 50-foot boom. The station's robotic arm, in turn, gripped the boom like a relay runner's baton. (Picture those stepladders stacked one atop another.) Colonel Wheelock, meanwhile, tethered himself to the truss at the base of the solar array to serve as spotter for Parazynski and the crew members operating the robotic arm.

Once near the panel, the 6-foot, 2-inch Parazynski stretched to his physical limit in order to thread cuff-link-like cords through grommets in the array, which held it together when he cut the frayed wire that had snagged the segments. Each step required subtle moves by the boom operators. Parazynski had to remain close enough to the array to do the work. But he also had to keep far enough away to avoid the risk of electrical shock from the "live" solar cells or further damage to the array as the boom and array shifted back and forth in response to his movements. The boom-robotic arm combo stretched to within two inches of its maximum reach.