Spacewalk Prepares Way for New Russian Space Station Module

by

NEW YORK — A pair of cosmonauts completed a six-hour spacewalk Feb. 16 to prepare the international space station for the arrival of a new Russian module next year.

Russian spacefliers Oleg Kononenko and Anton Shkaplerov spent more than six hours working outside the space station during the spacewalk. Their main goal was to move a space construction crane, called Strela, from the Pirs docking module on the bottom of the space station to a rooftop module called Poisk. Pirs, which has served as an airlock for spacewalks and docking port for Russian spacecraft since 2001, is being replaced next year by a new multipurpose research and docking module.

The spacewalkers had planned to install new metal shields on the station’s Russian segment to protect it against damage from micrometeorites and space junk. But the crane relocation work ran long and they had to skip the shield installation task.

Flight controllers at Russia’s Mission Control Center near Moscow told the cosmonauts they did a wonderful job, despite the skipped work. The spacewalk began at 9:31 a.m. EST and lasted six hours and 15 minutes.

The crane relocation was the critical item on the spacewalk to-do list. Prior to the spacewalk, the Pirs module was equipped with two cranes, both called Strela, which can be used to move spacewalkers to hard-to-reach spots on the station’s Russian section or transport bulky pieces of equipment.

The move ensures one of the Strela cranes will remain aboard the space station when the Pirs docking port is discarded to make way for Russia’s new Multipurpose Laboratory Module, which is due to arrive at the outpost by 2013, NASA officials said.

To make the space gear move, the spacewalkers had to extend the Strela crane out to nearly its full 14-meter length, swivel it around the Pirs module and attach it to a second crane. The cosmonauts then used the second crane to move the first one to a different module on the station’s roof.

Unlike the space station’s Canadian-built Canadarm2 robotic arm, the Strela cranes are unpowered. They are operated by a hand crank that cosmonauts turn in order to extend the crane to a desired length.

It was tough work in space, with the cosmonauts falling more than an hour behind schedule in order to move the unwieldy crane without damaging other parts of the space station. Mission controllers reminded the spacewalkers to use their spacesuit cooling systems to avoid overheating from their exertion. The cosmonauts agreed.

“We’re all hot and bothered,” one of the spacewalkers said at one point.

In addition to the crane work, the cosmonauts also took swab samples of areas beneath the insulation covering the station’s Pirs module. Russian scientists want to test the samples to see if any organisms have survived beneath the many layers, NASA officials said. The spacewalkers also installed a new materials experiment called Endurance before wrapping up their work.

Kononenko and Shkaplerov are two members of the six-man Expedition 30 crew currently living aboard the international space station. Two Americans, another Russian and a Dutch astronaut round out the crew.

The mid-February spacewalk was the 162nd spacewalk dedicated to the construction and maintenance of the international space station, which was built by five different space agencies representing 15 countries. Construction of the $100 billion space station began in 1998.