April 8, 1997 in Nation/World

Astronauts Work By Flashlight To Finish Tasks Early

Washington Post
 

Turning out lights to conserve power, astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia worked by flashlight Monday to complete as many scientific experiments as possible before their aborted mission ended.

Columbia’s planned 16-day flight, scheduled to end at 2:33 p.m. today at the Kennedy Space Center, was cut short Sunday by problems with one of the shuttle’s three electricity-producing fuel cells.

Working with the two remaining fuel cells, Columbia’s crew was forced to conserve electricity. So astronauts turned out lights and worked by flashlight at times in the dim confines of their Spacelab research module.

“It’s for sure you can’t cram 16 days of work into four days, but we’re doing our best at it,” said astronaut Donald Thomas. “Most of the experiments have been able to get at least one or two runs in, so we’re bringing some science.”

Only 10 percent to 15 percent of the objectives of the Microgravity Science Laboratory were completed during the shortened mission. But officials said the quality of the data scientists did receive was excellent and mission managers have requested a reflight.

“The disposition of that request by NASA headquarters will … take some time,” said Joel Kearns, a senior manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

“But I have no doubt … that in the future we will bring these investigations to a successful conclusion.”

NASA officials decided to end the mission early after engineers noted a slight discrepancy in the voltage from one section of a fuel cell, raising concern that the cell could catch fire or explode.

NASA flight rules require a shuttle crew to head for home as soon as reasonably possible in the event of a fuel-cell failure to protect the crew against the possibility of a second malfunction.

In that case, many of the shuttle’s backup guidance and navigation systems would have to be powered down, leaving the crew with few options for handling subsequent failures.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email