Shuttle Mission to Revive Space Station Work

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The space shuttle Atlantis blasts off after two frustrating weeks of delays. The mission will resume construction on the international space station, which came to a halt more than three years ago in the wake of the Columbia disaster.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Unidentified Man (Mission Control): Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five. Main engines up and burning. Two, one. And liftoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis. Opening a new chapter in the completion of the International Space Station for the...

ELLIOTT: After two weeks of frustrating delays, Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off this morning from Cape Canaveral with six astronauts on board. A chunk of insulating foam broke off the shuttle's external fuel tank during lift off, but mission control told the crew it did not appear to do any damage.

The crew is headed for the International Space Station to resume construction work. This is the first shuttle mission in almost four years devoted to building the orbiting laboratory.

NPR's Nell Boyce reports the astronauts describe their mission in terms that make it sound like a lot of fun.

NELL BOYCE: When Atlantis docks with the space station, the six shuttle astronauts will be greeted by the station's crew. But then two of the astronauts will leave their friends, get their sleeping bags and go on a campout.

Ms. HEIDI STEFANYSHYN-PIPER (Astronaut): And the reason we nicknamed it the campout is because the night before our space walks, we will go into the air lock, close the hatch and we'll just bring the pressure in the air lock down and then we'll spend the night at that lower pressure.

BOYCE: Heidi Stefanyshyn-Piper is one of the campers. She says that space walking is similar to underwater diving. Changes in pressure can cause a sickness called the bends.

The campout will allow the astronauts to acclimate to low pressure while they're sleeping, which saves time.

Ms. STEFANYSHYN-PIPER: And so then the next morning, we'll be ready for our space walk.

BOYCE: Like earthbound campers, they will have no bathroom, but in space there's also no campfire and no Smores.

Still, NASA likes this new timesaver because the astronauts have a lot to do. This mission will last about two weeks and it involves three tricky space walks.

Paul Hill is a NASA engineer who is managing the mission. He says the astronauts will use a robotic arm to unload the shuttle's cargo, a giant metal structure.

Mr. PAUL HILL (NASA): It looks sort of like a trestle bridge, you know, the old trestle railroad bridges, except that we have it stuffed full with computers and batteries and various electrical components.

BOYCE: The structure weighs over 17 tons. Astronauts will attach it to the station.

Mr. HILL: And then once it's attached, these two things that look like big oil drums are going to open up and the Tinker Toys are going to deploy out of the side of them.

BOYCE: The Tinker Toys, as Hill calls them, are actually parts of two collapsible solar panels. Each one has a central mast and a pair of late catching blankets that are folded up like an accordion.

Hill says the unfolding panels will look like an expanding erector set.

Mr. HILL: And it does look a lot like a toy, with hundreds of these small elements, each one that will pop into shape, and just this small can will eventually be a 120 foot long solar array with a great big blanket sticking out in the breeze collecting sunlight to make electricity.

BOYCE: Hill says the station will be able to generate twice as much power as before.

Mr. HILL: To put it in terms of your house, it would be like adding another wire from the utility company into your house so that you can add another couple of floors and a lot more TVs and things like that.

BOYCE: Of course, NASA doesn't want more TVs. The plan is to add two new science labs. Right now the station is only half finished.

Shuttle pilot Chris Ferguson says this will be the first new addition to the station in four years, since the Columbia disaster put construction on hold.

Mr. CHRIS FERGUSON (Shuttle Pilot): It'll be a pleasure to leave the station in a much different configuration than when we first arrived. And it will be nice, hopefully, propellant allowing, to do a fly-around at the end of that mission and take some great photos.

KEYES: Even if the astronauts don't get photos, people on the ground will be able to see that the station has grown. At night, it normally looks like a star moving across the sky. Because the new solar panels will reflect light, they'll make that star a little brighter.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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