Number Two Wire and Pliers
What a jam-packed month we have had here! I first wrote “couple of weeks”, but started counting them in my head and realized it has already been a month…so time really is flying by, almost as fast as we are at 17,500 mph! After arrival to the International Space Station, I immediately laid “claim” to Clay Anderson, fellow Midwesterner and Expedition 15 crew member that would stay until STS-120 departure. Clay and I previously had the opportunity to work together on an underwater mission in the Aquarius habitat located off the Florida Keys, and we also trained together as a backup crew for Expedition 14. Needless to say, the Iowa-Nebraska rivalry picked up as though we hadn’t missed a beat…
Image at right: Clay Anderson (left) and Peggy Whitson participated in an underwater mission, NASA's Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO, before meeting again aboard the space station. Credit: NASA
Clay had a tradition where he would play a “wake-up” song for mission control each morning before our daily planning conference with the ground team and in his best radio voice, he would dedicate a song from “K-ISS Radio”. He was pretty clever about finding a song related to some activity or event. Sleep shifting for the Soyuz departure and Shuttle launch, he played “Who Needs Sleep?”. Halloween was the “Monster Mash”. The morning after Pam Melroy and her crew launched to join us on orbit, he played “Whip It” in honor of 2 women commanders on orbit and the whip that the Kazakh official gave me as a symbol of being the leader for this mission. I probably should have used the whip on him, but most times I was laughing too hard!
There were 8 days of overlap with the Expedition 15 and 16 crew members and Sheikh Muszaphar, the Malaysian space flight participant. Even though Yuri and I have lived up here for 6 months on previous missions, it was important to get the most recent “gauge” on everything from where the trash bags are now stowed to best operating practices for new rack facilities, like MELFI (the freezer) while we had the Expedition 15 crew around. While many things are exactly as I remembered (the computer pantry is where it used to be), things like Clay’s recent activities to set up the new station local area network provided lots of new info for me. Most of our activities during this time frame were in preparation for the arriving Shuttle crew, packing items to be returned to Earth on the Shuttle, organizing the tools, spacesuits and charging batteries for the space walks, and pre-positioning hardware that we needed for activities during the Shuttle docked timeframe.
The biggest difference in my experience here on station now as compared to my previous flight is the fact that there are 2 U.S. crew members and only 1 Russian. It is great having another crew member around (within the same or next module) to joke around with, share the beauty of something seen out the window and being easily available to help one another. While I didn’t mind being the sole U.S. crew member on my previous flight, it is special to be able to share some of the moments with someone else in the room…
Two days after the Soyuz departed, we watched the STS-120 Shuttle crew launch via videoconference with the ground. I think some part of me was expecting a weather delay, so I was really surprised when the Shuttle did launch! Clay, literally, was spinning since his ride home was on the way. In the 2 days following, while we waited for them to sync up with us on orbit, I cranked up my pace to make sure everything was ready for them…I’m a good worrier.
Image at left: Station Commander Peggy Whitson (left) and shuttle Commander Pamela Melroy worked with each other when the STS-120 crew visited the Expedition 16 crew. Credit: NASA
It was great greeting friends to the station, our little outpost on orbit, but 10 minutes after the smiles, hugs, and back-slapping, we were diving right into the work. We had spacesuits and gear to transfer and set up, prepare the space-walking crew for the overnight campout (we depress the pressure in the airlock to 10.2 psi in order to reduce the nitrogen in the blood/tissues so that when we do the spacewalks in spacesuits that are at a lower pressure than sea level there is less risk of getting the bends during the EVA) and robotics to perform that very first day in preparation for unberthing the new Harmony module (Node 2) from the Shuttle and placing it on its temporary resting place on Unity (Node 1).
The next several days were a blur of activities, with the EVAs and the robotics, and even included the addition of an inspection task on the starboard SARJ (solar alpha rotary joint) which had been showing some unusual readings and visible vibrations just prior to the arrival of the Shuttle. Enough unusual behavior in fact, that the team had decided to “park” it (leaving it in a constant position, as opposed to rotating with our orbit to find the best sun angle for solar power generation) until we could make some further assessments.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the truss there were big plans. The port 6 (P6) solar array, seated on the zenith side of Node 1 was plucked from this spot, handed off to the Shuttle arm (we refer to this arm as the small arm, much to the chagrin of the Shuttle guys), the mobile transporter, carrying the station arm (the big arm, by process of elimination), then moved to the end of the tracks and into position for the P6 solar array truss hand-off and installation. The complicated choreography between robotic arms (with 2 operators each), EVA crew (the guys doing the spacewalk) and the IV crew (the guy keeping the tasks organized for the EVA crew) for the entire set-up and conduct of the task was considered to be the “sportiest” part of the docked time frame. All of that went pretty much without any significant glitches, much to the relief of all involved.
But the real test was yet to come. We unfurled one wing of the array with no issues…in just under the expected 12 minutes. The other side of the array was the one that was so problematic during the retraction last December, so we were particularly attentive to the behavior of the array during the deploy. We passed the trouble spot, however, the lighting was so bright that our cameras were flaring and our camera views deteriorated. We decided to abort and wait a few minutes to see if the picture would improve. It did, and we continued the deploy, but shortly after re-initiating the deploy, we spotted a tear in the array and aborted again. My heart was in my throat as we did a video survey of the damage. My initial thought was that we were lucky that the portion of the array that carries the current (FCC) appeared to be intact. Game over if it had been torn too. Although consciously I knew there was some risk in the re-deploy of this array, I was not only disappointed, but very concerned about how limited our repair options might be…and further what the implications for the station would be if we couldn’t repair it. Needless to say, that whole worrier thing that I specialize in was in high gear.
The next morning we started activities that had previously been planned to support the subsequent EVA, knowing (hoping) that there was a good chance that the plan would be changing dramatically. That afternoon, we got the word that the next EVA was changing to focus on solar array repair and would be delayed a day for the team to get all the procedures ready for us. At that time, they were not able to give us any details on the repair, but said there would be “more words” in the morning. I think it is interesting to note that we as a crew (Shuttle and Station combined) knew that any repair option would not be easy, but that we were all optimistic that our ground team would come up with something viable. Maybe that was our only choice, since the alternative---jettisoning the array---was just too horrible to accept or dwell on…
The following day we got the big picture plan for making and using cufflink-like wires to thread through holes in the seams of the arrays, such that the cuff-links would take the loading as the array was completely deployed, providing relief for the torn section. There were EVA and robotics conferences with the ground teams and our folks on board that day to go over the details. In the meantime, George Zamka (Shuttle pilot—Zambo) and I got busy building the cuff-links “from scratch”. We watched a “How To” video by Don Pettit (our resident astronaut genius) telling us what we were going to build and how to do it. We had to precisely cut metal sheeting, shave the corners, and then punch a pair of holes in each of them. Metal shavings in zero gravity can be hazardous, so we were garbed in safety goggles and working in front of a vacuum cleaner! After that, we covered the metal pieces with Kapton tape, followed by EVA tape (so that they wouldn’t be conductive to electricity), and then threaded a very precise length of plastic-coated wire through the holes. We knew that all the dimensions were critical; the ground team called us and told us to change one pair of lengths by 3/8 of an inch! It took us 6 hours to build the 5 cuff-links…and looking at the hand-made spindly wires with the metal tabs on the end, I was still having a hard time imagining how this was really going to work. My dad, a farmer, always said you can fix just about anything with a “number 2 wire and a pair of pliers.” It seemed to me like we were testing the limits of his philosophy for this one!
Image above: STS-120 crew member and spacewalker Scott Parazynski looks at the fully deployed solar array after completing his repairs. Credit: NASA
The solar array repair EVA was delayed another day to further refine the procedures. I was comfortable with taking the additional time, even though it meant moving Yuri’s and my EVA to the stage instead of conducting it in the docked mission…the priority had to be on the repair. More conferences with the ground teams to review the specific details of the robotics and EVA tasks were conducted the next day. A new definition of what was considered “sporty” in terms of robotics and EVA maneuvers was further defined... The amount of training material and the procedures that were coming up from the ground left NO doubt in our minds that we had every able-bodied person at NASA working to come up with a solution. It was a great feeling to be a part of that focused and determined team.
Repair day, we all dove into our tasks, but there was notably more tension on board the station, and if possible, I think I sensed it from the ground team too. Maybe because our team had not rehearsed this little scenario, maybe because of the risks involved in completing the task, maybe because of the implications if repair wasn’t feasible…
The views from Scott’s helmet camera were spectacular, as Stephanie and Dan “flew” him out to the worksite on the end of the big arm with the orbiter inspection extension arm at the end of that. The maneuvers required to get Scott to the work site took a bit more than an hour, and were by no means simple. Even with the extension, it became apparent early on in the repair work that the arm wasn’t really long enough to reach some parts of the array that Scott needed to thread the cuff-links through. Because of the fact that the array wasn’t taut and that Scott had long arms (monkey arms as Pambo referred to them), he was able to pull the array toward himself using his Kapton-taped tools and managed to thread the cuff-links into place.
The next test was the continued deploy of the array…to see if the cuff-links would hold. The ground had asked us to deploy half a bay (a little less than a yard) at a time to incrementally monitor the loading on the array/cuff-links. A simple key stroke for “deploy” on the computer, followed relatively quickly with an “abort” command, made difficult only by the fact that my fingers and toes were crossed, and I was saying a prayer, as well! My relief at seeing the cuff-links seemingly carrying the load grew with each half-bay that we successfully deployed.
From our 2 port windows, it is now possible to watch 2 pairs of arrays, each 214 feet long, slowly tracking the sun while we circle the Earth in the sunlit portion of our orbit. Like another set of sails on our ship, they look even more spectacular now, knowing how close the ugly alternatives truly were… Our ship continues to sail as a testament to what can be accomplished by a very determined/dedicated group of people. I am very proud to be a part of that team.