December 17, 2006 in Nation/World

Astronauts wrestle with solar array

Mike Schneider Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A pair of spacewalkers manually shaking a stubborn solar array managed to free some stuck grommets Saturday, but not enough to fold the array up into a box properly.

The array was more than half retracted when astronauts Robert Curbeam and Sunita Williams approached it after completing their main spacewalk tasks. After scores of shakes and remote control commands to retract, the array folded another several degrees, eventually retracting 65 percent.

“We really commend you for a tremendous effort, an Olympian effort of our two shaking EVA members,” Mission Control radioed to the astronauts, using the technical acronym for spacewalk. The duo clocked a marathon 7 hour 31 minute-spacewalk, the last two hours of which was spent working on the array.

Curbeam and Williams made progress on a problem that has vexed NASA since Wednesday. Earlier in the day, the space agency approved conducting a fourth, unplanned spacewalk if astronauts were unable to get the accordion-like array to fold up into a box properly.

It’s unclear whether NASA will go forth with that additional spacewalk. If carried out Monday, it would delay space shuttle Discovery’s landing at the Kennedy Space Center by a day to Friday, and push back other activities such as undocking and inspecting the shuttle’s heat shield. The partially retracted solar wing was part of the space station’s temporary power system.

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