A Japanese astronaut sent into orbit aboard the space shuttle Endeavour retrieved his country’s science satellite Saturday after its wayward wings were clipped.
Koichi Wakata used the shuttle’s robot arm to haul the gleaming, 4-ton satellite - minus its two solar-panel wings - into the shuttle’s cargo bay.
“Koichi’s got it, Houston,” shuttle commander Brian Duffy said.
Japan’s new prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, and other dignitaries called Endeavour to congratulate Wakata.
“We were actually getting a little nervous, but thanks to you the mission was successful,” said Hidenao Nakagawa, Japanese minister of state for science and technology.
The capture 290 miles above the Gulf of Mexico, at an orbital speed of 17,500 mph, ended several hours of tension on Endeavour and in two control centers on opposite sides of the world.
It was the primary objective of NASA’s nine-day mission and of extreme importance to the Japanese space program, eager to get back its satellite and experiments after 10 months aloft.
“Japanese proverb says the last step on descending ladder is most essential,” said Kyichi Kuricki, satellite project manager, “so we look forward to eventual, beautiful landing at the Kennedy Space Center.”
The rendezvous ran into delays when the satellite’s electricity-generating solar panels folded up but failed to lock into place, possibly because of balky motors.
Japanese engineers working from a control center outside Tokyo tried everything to salvage the 32-foot-long panels - the spacecraft is designed to be reusable - while critical battery power drained.
Finally, after more than an hour, Japanese controllers decided to jettison the $8.6 million panels, a situation for which everyone had trained before the flight. The panels were severed by ground command and floated away, the latest additions to Earth’s orbital junkyard.
It was the first time a spacecraft launched by one country was retrieved by another for return to Earth.
The octagonal satellite - resembling a giant sunflower in Endeavour’s cargo bay - was rocketed into space from a launch site in Japan last March on a mission valued at nearly $700 million.
It contains dead Japanese red-bellied newts, newt eggs, crystal-growth furnaces and an infrared telescope, among other things.
The astronauts, who already have had to dodge a defunct Air Force satellite, won’t have to worry about running into the drifting solar panels. Endeavour dove to a lower, safer orbit following Saturday’s retrieval.
On Sunday, the astronauts were to release a U.S. science satellite. A pair of spacewalks are scheduled for later in the week.
Endeavour’s landing is set for Jan. 20.