Cosmonauts Upgrade ISS During Lengthy Spacewalk

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Two spacewalking cosmonauts ventured outside the international space station (ISS) Nov. 15 and sped through a long list of orbital maintenance jobs, with only a stubborn TV camera preventing them from completing their work.

Veteran spacewalker Fyodor Yurchikhin and first-timer Oleg Skripochka, both of Russia’s Federal Space Agency, spent about six-and-a-half hours floating outside the space station to install a new staging ground for spacewalking crews along with tackling several other maintenance tasks.

All went relatively smoothly until their last task, when the cosmonauts were to move a TV camera from one spot to another on one of the station’s Russian-built docking modules. Insulation around the module blocked repeated efforts to secure it in place.

Russian mission controllers decided to postpone that job for a later spacewalk since the cosmonauts were running out of time and needed to go back inside.

“Now we have a clear understanding of what is going to be done next,” Moscow Mission Control radioed.

Another minor hiccup came earlier in the Russian-managed spacewalk when the cosmonauts saw an object floating away and worried that a tool may have escaped in space. They will have to double check their tool bags to make sure they have everything.

Despite starting about 30 minutes late, at around 9:53 a.m. EDT, Yurchikhin and Skripochka worked at breakneck pace and were often ahead of schedule. In fact, the spacewalkers were speeding through their work so fast that at one point mission controllers had to force them to take a break.

When Skripochka appeared overeager to continue working, Moscow Mission Control radioed, “We asked you not to work. I can see how he’s moving to the handrail. Oleg, you have to stop, you have to rest.”

Yet that was easier said than done.

“It is not as easy as it seems to be,” Skripochka said, complaining that it was tough to be still. “I think I’ll get cold if I stay without movement any longer.”

Altogether, the spacewalkers completed a bevy of tasks, including installing the new work station designed to aid in future maintenance work, removing an old experiment to test an Internet-based control system for the station’s robotic arm, and collecting samples from the insulation of an oxygen-generation machine to look for signs of microorganisms there. They also attached a new science experiment to test the effects of the space environment on a series of materials.

The spacewalkers are two of six crewmembers living aboard the ISS  now as part of the Expedition 25 mission. NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock is commanding the mission, while Skripochka, Yurchikhin, cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri and NASA astronauts Shannon Walker and Scott Kelly are serving as flight engineers.

Walker, Wheelock and Yurchikhin, meanwhile, will have to return to Earth a few days early to avoid interfering with an international security summit being held near their landing site in Central Asia.

The three spacefliers are now slated to land their Russian Soyuz TMA-19 space capsule on the central steppes of Kazakhstan at 11:46 p.m. EST on Nov. 25. The crew is wrapping up a five-month flight to the international space station.

The Soyuz landing originally was scheduled to occur Nov. 30, but Kazakh officials wanted to restrict air traffic a few days before the start of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit, which is being held Dec. 1-2 in Astana, Kazakhstan. Astana is approximately 400 kilometers away from the Soyuz landing site.

“Kazakh officials asked our Russian partners if they could make the adjustment to avoid conflicts with the conference,” NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries said in an interview from Johnson Space Center in Houston. “There’s some preparation work that’s going to have to be changed a little bit, and some maintenance work that requires additional crew members will be shifted.”

The adjustments are not expected to cause any problems, and with the opening of the next space shuttle launch window quickly approaching, the change might even free up some traffic in space.

NASA is preparing Space Shuttle Discovery to fly on its final voyage, now slated for no earlier than Dec. 3. Work is under way to fix a leaking hydrogen system that caused Discovery’s initial launch delay and repair cracks in support beams on its external fuel tank.

In the meantime, Yurchikhin, Walker and Wheelock will continue making preparations for their homecoming as they near the end of their long-duration stay aboard the space station. The three spacefliers launched to the station on a Russian Soyuz rocket June 15.

After their departure, the station will drop down to a three-person crew until mid-December, when Catherine Coleman, Paolo Nespoli and Dmitri Kondratyev journey to the space station to round out the outpost’s Expedition 26 crew.