The problem in space Wednesday was with American equipment, and it was Russian know-how that helped bail NASA out of a minor glitch during a spacewalk.
Usually NASA helps Russia keep its rickety Mir space station alive with new equipment, such as a main computer that was brought up by shuttle Atlantis and installed on Mir Wednesday. The computer showed signs that it was working, but Russian ground controllers won’t know until later today if it will solve Mir’s instability problems.
But on Wednesday, it was NASA that needed the help. When spacewalker Scott Parazynski exited Atlantis, a reel that retracts his safety tether tangled. He still had a jet pack in case of an emergency, a device tested later in the spacewalk.
After giving up on the balky tether, NASA adopted a Russian spacewalking technique that the agency learned while astronauts trained in Moscow.
Instead of being hooked up to one long safety tether, as NASA uses, Parazynski used a few short tethers attached to his waist and moved hand-over-hand until he put a new tether in and detached the old one.
This more cumbersome method, similar to rock climbing, is used by Russian cosmonauts.
“He basically had to pull himself along,” NASA spokesman Ed Pritchard said.
Parazynski and Atlantis crewmate Vladimir Titov of Russia spent five hours in a spacewalk that was more complicated than planned because of Parazynski’s tether problems.
The two spacewalkers accomplished their main goal: retrieving four suitcase-sized containers that have spent 18 months attached to Mir’s docking module. The containers contained paint and coating samples to determine their durability for the still-to-be-built international space station.
The containers also collected space debris to see what kind of particles - and how many - could be expected to hit the international station. They found a lot of small hits, just as experimenters hoped.
“I can see several small little impacts,” Parazynski said after examining the first container.
The two spacewalkers also attached a bag to the docking module that holds a cap for Mir’s punctured Spektr lab, damaged in a June crash. Russia suspects that a solar power panel is the source of Spektr’s air leak, and the cap in the bag would go over the base of the panel to seal the leak.
Parazynski gazed at Earth and Mir and marveled: “It’s just incredible. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.”