Busy Mission Runs Astronauts Through Multiple Roles
The astronauts of STS-126 served as interior decorators, handymen and professional movers during more than two weeks in space that saw them outfit the International Space Station for a six-person crew.
Working closely with two astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut already living on the orbiting laboratory, the crew of space shuttle Endeavour installed a new crew quarters, galley, water recycler and toilet in the station.
The astronauts donned their spacesuits and grabbed their orbital tool belts for a successful series of four spacewalks that repaired a balky joint that turns the starboard-side solar arrays on the station. They also performed some preventative maintenance on the port-side arrays.
The 16-day flight came as NASA marked the 10th anniversary of the Nov. 20, 1998, launch of the station’s first element, a Russian-built module called Zarya. A NASA-launched node called “Unity” followed less than a month later to form the high-tech cornerstones of what has grown into the largest manmade spacecraft ever flown. Although it was uncrewed for two years, the space station has hosted 2- and 3-person resident teams since late 2000.
Endeavour’s goal was to set the stage so NASA can double that number in 2009. Doing so required the shuttle to loft the most supplies and equipment ever carried to the station by a single mission.
Seven tons of material was packed inside the Multi Purpose Logistics Module Leonardo. Some, such as the water recycler, went to the station inside the same racks they would occupy in space. Others, mainly supplies, were strapped to the walls inside Leonardo, which is built like a space station module but designed to return with the shuttle it came up on.
With Leonardo bolted inside Endeavour’s cargo bay, the countdown to launch winded through its final phase on Nov. 14, 2008. The sun had set about two hours before the shuttle’s twin solid rocket boosters and three main engines ignited to cast an artificial sunrise over NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Eight and a half minutes later, Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Eric Boe and Mission Specialists Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, Steve Bowen, Donald Pettit, Shane Kimbrough and Sandra Magnus found themselves orbiting high above Earth and free of gravity’s hold.
After chasing the International Space Station for a day, Ferguson guided the equipment-laden Endeavour to a precise connection to begin more than 11 days of work at the orbiting complex.
Magnus took over on the station for Greg Chamitoff, who had lived in space for six months by the time Endeavour arrived. While they traded places, both would continue to play important roles in the transfer and installation of supplies and equipment. Station commander Michael Fincke and cosmonaut Yury Lonchikov would also take on primary responsibilities while Endeavour was docked to the station.
The work began soon after Leonardo was lifted from Endeavour’s payload bay and attached to an empty port on the Harmony node. Leonardo is a moving van of sorts for the station, and the astronauts quickly opened the hatch to begin transferring equipment to new homes inside the station. Pettit, who served on the station for about five months during a previous mission, headed the transfer operations.
Of course, the absence of gravity made the move significantly easier, particularly shuffling refrigerator-sized racks stuffed with gear that on Earth would require a forklift. Instead, the astronauts could push the items about by themselves and needed help only to guide them right and left as they floated the equipment into place.
By the time it was finished, the station had its new crew quarters and facilities, along with a new exercise device and research racks that will be called on in the coming years for a variety of space experiments.
There were also some outdoor duties for the astronauts to take care of during the flight. For those, Stefanyshyn-Piper, Bowen and Kimbrough would take turns maneuvering in their spacesuits outside the station. A troublesome joint on the starboard side of the station’s large truss garnered most of the attention as spacewalkers replaced trundle bearing assemblies and cleaned and lubricated the structure that moves the solar arrays to track the sun.
The three spacewalkers, working two at a time, spent 26 hours and 41 minutes completing the four spacewalks. The EVAs, as spacewalks are known, were the latest in 118 conducted during the 10 years of space station work. Astronauts and cosmonauts have spent more than 745 hours on station spacewalks.
Like their Earthbound countrymen, the astronauts marked Thanksgiving with turkey and trimmings. They also got a bit of time to look out the windows at Earth and take some pictures.
After returning Leonardo to the payload bay the day before, Endeavour left the station Friday, Nov. 28, 2008. Boe, making his first spaceflight, piloted the shuttle around the station complex before Endeavour moved out of sight.
Landing day came two days later, but not where the astronauts expected. Instead of touching down in Florida, where storm clouds and high winds dominated the weather, Endeavour was detoured to California. After a flawless entry, Endeavour glided through the clear blue sky over Edwards Air Force Base northeast of Los Angeles, Calif. Ferguson touched the main landing gear to a temporary runway on the base at 4:25 p.m. EST on Nov. 30, 2008 to end the mission.
STS-126 ended after 15 days, 20 hours, 29 minutes and 37 seconds, leaving a legacy that will last in space for years to come.
Steven Siceloff, KSC