CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A spacewalking astronaut accidentally let go of her tool bag Tuesday after a grease gun inside it exploded, and helplessly watched as the tote and everything inside floated away.
It was one of the largest items ever to be lost by a spacewalker and occurred during an unprecedented attempt to clean and lube a gummed-up joint at the International Space Station.
Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper was just starting to work on the joint when the mishap occurred.
She said her grease gun exploded, getting the dark gray stuff all over a camera and her gloves. While she was wiping everything off, the white, backpack-size bag slipped out of her grip, and she lost all her tools.
“Oh, great,” she mumbled.
She and her fellow spacewalker, Stephen Bowen, then finished their tasks in almost seven hours by sharing tools. Bowen had his own tool bag with another set of grease guns, putty knives and oven-like terry cloth mitts to wipe away metal grit from the joint.
“Despite my little hiccup, or major hiccup, I think we did a good job out there,” Stefanyshyn-Piper said after returning to the space station.
Flight controllers were assessing the impact the lost bag would have on the next three planned spacewalks. The astronauts may be asked to keep sharing tools or use caulking-style guns intended for repairs to the shuttle’s thermal shielding.
Earlier, the spacewalkers spotted a screw floating by but were too far away to catch it.
“I have no idea where it came from,” Stefanyshyn-Piper told Mission Control.
Flight director Ginger Kerrick said neither the bag nor the screw posed hazards to the spacecraft. By late Tuesday, the bag was already 2 1/2 miles in front of the shuttle-station complex. “It’s well on its way away from us,” she assured reporters.
NASA was not sure how the bag got loose; it should have been tethered to a larger equipment bag. Another unknown: why the grease gun discharged.
“It is a human endeavor. Mistakes can happen. Equipment can fail,” said John Ray, lead spacewalk officer in Mission Control.