Shuttle Crew Repairs Crucial Air Purifier, Avoiding Early Return
Space shuttle Columbia’s astronauts successfully restarted a critical air purifier Saturday after it failed and threatened to cut short their two-week science mission.
With a few twists and snips, Commander Richard Searfoss removed one end of a small hose in the stalled carbon dioxide removal unit and blocked it with tape. He then reinstalled the hose, bypassing a leaky valve.
When he turned on the carbon dioxide removal unit, the light came on. To everyone’s relief, it stayed on.
The unit had to operate reliably for the seven astronauts to remain in orbit for all 16 or 17 days of their mission to study the brain. Its failure would have forced the crew to return to Earth as early as Wednesday--four days sooner than planned.
Mission operations representative Lee Briscoe said the seven astronauts were never in any danger during the 18-hour ordeal because the level of carbon dioxide gas in the shuttle rose only slightly.
The carbon dioxide removal unit shut down without warning late Friday. Columbia’s astronauts immediately switched to an alternate method of purifying their air.
After reassuring flight controllers the unit was “cool and copacetic,” Searfoss likened the job to auto repair.
“It must be Saturday,” Searfoss said. “Time to work on our car like down on Earth.”
Briscoe said engineers won’t know why the valve leaked until they examine it after the flight. It may have become contaminated with debris, he said.