Spacewalk kicks off installation of lab

Two spacewalking astronauts floated out of a hatch on the International Space Station on Monday to help install a new European lab, while a crewmate who was supposed to participate in the outing helped from inside.

Spacewalkers Rex Walheim and Stanley Love ventured outside as the space station passed over Asia.

“Welcome to spacewalking, buddy,” Walheim said as Love made his way through the hatch for his first spacewalk.

“It’s awesome,” Love replied.

German astronaut Hans Schlegel was supposed to be Walheim’s spacewalking partner, but he was pulled from the job on Saturday because of an undisclosed illness. Schlegel looked and sounded well on Sunday and was expected to take part in the second spacewalk of the mission on Wednesday.

On Monday, however, Schlegel was helping choreograph the outing from inside the station.

The main task for Walheim and Love will be attaching a handle to Columbus laboratory that will allow robotic-arm operator Leland Melvin to grab hold of the module and delicately lift it from Atlantis‘s cargo bay.

Melvin will then install Columbus on the right side of the Harmony module, which Discovery‘s astronauts delivered in December.

The Columbus laboratory, weighing 9,07-metric tonnes, is Europe’s main contribution to the space station.

The original plan called for the module to be launched in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World. Since then, the $2-billion lab has endured space station redesigns and slowdowns, as well as a number of shuttle postponements and two shuttle accidents.

“This will be a big day for us,” said French Air Force General Leopold Eyharts, who arrived at the station aboard Atlantis to spend a month setting up and activating the new lab.

With their flight now 12 days long because of the spacewalk delay, Atlantis‘s astronauts conducted another survey of a thermal blanket that has a torn corner; the stitching came apart at the seams, and the corner pulled up.

Engineers were analysing the problem to determine whether the blanket would stand up to the intense heat of re-entry at the flight’s end, or whether spacewalk repairs might be needed. The blanket is located on the right orbital manoeuvring system pod, back near the shuttle’s tail.

Nasa is vigilant when it comes to the shuttle’s thermal shielding, ever since Columbia was destroyed in 2003 following a foam strike to its wing during launch.

John Shannon, chairperson of the mission management team, said the thermal covering on the wings, nose and belly of Atlantis have no areas of concern and have been cleared for re-entry in just more than a week.—Sapa-AP

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