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Failing Satellite Grabbed Perilous Spacewalk Unfolds Flawlessly

Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket.

Dangling outside the space shuttle as it spun around Earth at 17,500 mph, astronaut Winston Scott and a rookie companion waited, waited, waited Monday night and then - “Standby, standby, capture!” - successfully caught a bulky satellite in their gloved hands.

“I’ve got my end,” said Scott, 47, born and raised in Florida.

“I’ve got mine,” said Japanese astronaut Takao Doi.

And then, from Scott:

“Now that we’ve got it, Mr. Doi, let’s decide what we’re going to do with it.”

Actually, it already had been decided and the perilous, improvised spacewalk 201 miles above the planet seemed certain to end in complete success. Scott and Doi began stowing the malfunctioning satellite in the cargo bay of shuttle Columbia, which will deliver it to a repair shop back on Earth.

Engineers in Mission Control applauded, cheered, exhaled in relief:

No collision between the 3,000-pound solar observatory and the 100-ton shuttle. No harm to the two astronauts who toiled in the hostile environment of outer space. No unforeseen complications.

Invent a rescue mission smack in the middle of a shuttle flight? Pilot the shuttle close - but not too close - to an out-of-control satellite? Stand in the near-vacuum of space, tethered to the shuttle only by foot rests, then linger patiently until just the right time?

No problem.

And it was entertaining, too.

The $10 million Spartan satellite failed shortly after Columbia’s crew deployed it Friday. Then, another problem: Astronaut Kalpana Chawla failed to snare it with the shuttle’s robotic arm, instead nudging it into a slow, dangerous spin.

Eager to recover the reusable satellite, NASA engineers authorized the unusual rescue mission. Astronauts have caught satellites before, but only rarely. The last attempt came in May 1992 when three spacewalkers grabbed a 9,000-pound satellite.

Monday night, Scott and Doi floated to center stage, their work televised live around the world.

They donned bulky white spacesuits. They fastened their feet to a platform that spanned the open cargo bay. “There we go,” Scott said as the restraints took hold.

They leaned back, way back, trying to stay out of the way as shuttle commander Kevin Kregel nudged Columbia ever closer to the satellite at 1/10 of a mile per hour. Thankfully, the satellite’s tumbling spin had subsided considerably, making everyone’s job easier.

The target approached. Not yet. It edged closer. Still not time. Closer still. And closer, at last spinning to a suitable position at chest level.

Finally …, they grasped it. Each astronaut seized one end of an 11-foot telescope that protruded from the satellite.

“Let’s be patient,” Scott, who has flown - walked - in space once before, said at one point. “We have plenty of time.”