Spacewalking Astronauts Capture Spinning Satellite
Two spacewalking astronauts leaned over and grabbed a slowly spinning satellite with their gloved hands Monday night in a bold rescue that required more patience than strength.
After waiting an hour for the satellite to tilt the right way, NASA astronaut Winston Scott and Japanese astronaut Takao Doi reached out and, at the same moment, grasped opposite ends of the out-of-control satellite.
“Now that we’ve got it, Mr. Doi, let’s decide what we’re going to do with it,” Scott said in a lighthearted voice.
The men clung to the satellite as they tried to lower it into its cradle in the cargo bay. They couldn’t get the satellite firmly down, however, so Mission Control ordered the cockpit crew to use the shuttle’s robot arm.
Finally, more than three hours after the spacewalk began, the satellite was latched into the cargo bay and the crew’s three-day ordeal was over. Initial tests showed the satellite to be in good shape.
“Fantastic work. Well done,” Mission Control said.
For the six crew members, there was more at stake than the $10-million reusable Spartan science satellite. It was a matter of pride. They accidentally sent the satellite into a slow tumble moments after releasing it Friday and wanted nothing more than to set things right.
The astronauts were relieved to find the Spartan satellite in fairly stable condition Monday evening. Commander Kevin Kregel reported a slight but clearly noticeable rotation as he steered Columbia in for the 175-mile-high catch.
NASA’s main concern was a collision between the satellite and either the shuttle or a spacewalker, although officials insisted the risk was extremely low.
The satellite had been released from the shuttle to spend two days studying the sun. But for reasons that are still unclear, it malfunctioned within moments. And when Columbia’s crew tried to retrieve it with the shuttle robot arm, it started tumbling too quickly to be grabbed safely.
After three days of anxious separation, Columbia was back at Spartan’s side a little over one hour into the spacewalk. By then, Scott and Doi had positioned themselves on opposite ends of a platform spanning the cargo bay, their feet secured in restraints and their bodies leaning back to avoid being struck by the 3,000-pound satellite.
Kregel slowly steered Columbia up to Spartan as both spacecraft zoomed around Earth at 17,500 mph, and positioned the shuttle in such a way that the satellite was between the spacewalkers.
And the waiting game began.
“We’ll just be patient and see what happens,” Scott said as the satellite loomed before him.
A few minutes later, Scott reported: “This position is perfect. The telescope is right between us.”
A full hour passed before Scott announced that he and Doi were ready.
“OK. Are you ready? Standby, standby, capture,” Scott said. “I’ve got my end.”
Added Doi: “I’ve got my end.”
Spartan--a 5-foot cube with a 20-inch-diameter telescope tube protruding from opposite sides--was supposed to be tilted so that the tube pointed straight at both spacewalkers. But it wouldn’t point that way, so Scott grabbed a protruding pin and Doi grasped one end of the tube.
The job called for perfect timing rather than brute strength; NASA said the catch required just 10 pounds of force.
Once Spartan was anchored in the cargo bay, ground controllers conducted a series of checks to determine whether it might be feasible to send the satellite back out later in the 16-day mission.
The last time astronauts grabbed a satellite with their gloved hands was in 1992. Three spacewalks and three spacewalkers were needed to catch the slowly spinning communications satellite, which was three times the size of Spartan.
Scott, 47, a Navy officer, performed a spacewalk once before, in early 1996, to test new thermal wear. Doi, 43, a Tokyo-born engineer, became the first Japanese spacewalker.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia rescued the Spartan satellite, which had been spinning out of control since Friday.
1. The shuttle slowly approached the satellite. It then closely followed it, rotating at about the same rate and axis as the satellite.
2. The spacewalkers were positioned on opposite ends of a shuttle cargo bay.
3. They leaned back as Columbia crept up to the satellite.
4. Once the satellite was between the two men at head level, they reached out and grabbed the ends of the telescopic tube.
5. They then waited for the satellite to rotate into a position in which they could grab it.
6. The satellite finally was lowered into the cargo bay.
* Source: NASA