MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
Coming up, an Iraqi general's death calls into question US military interrogation tactics.
But first, two NASA astronauts successfully completed a space walk today and removed two troubling pieces of ceramic fabric sticking out from the Discovery Shuttle's heat shield. Astronaut Stephen Robinson rode a robot arm under the belly of the shuttle and plucked the loose fabric out with his fingers.
Unidentified Man #1: Nicely done, Steve. Back to you, the GC airway from there.
Mr. STEPHEN ROBINSON (Astronaut): I'd like to move away from the orbiter. Body aft.
Unidentified Man #2: Body aft. And we're taking the brakes off and going back into mode. It'll be about 30 seconds here.
Mr. ROBINSON: Sounds great. OK. That came out very easily. Probably even less force. It looks like this big patient is cured.
BRAND: Engineers weren't sure if the fabric pieces posed a danger or not, but they decided the ride back to Earth would be safer without them. NPR's David Kestenbaum joins me now.
And David, just with his bare fingers. What happened to Stephen Roberts' hacksaw?
DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:
NASA has backup plans for its backup plans. Every--by all accounts, everything went flawlessly. Roberts attached himself to the robotic arm and he got--he was the first person ever to be underneath the space shuttle during a space walk. He said it looked like a work of art. You know, there's this sort of patchwork of the different colored--slightly different shaded, colored tiles. And he reached out with his fingers and he plucked them out, and he said--he estimated that he'd used one and a half pounds of force. That's an astronaut for you. They can tell you how many pounds it takes to--of force it takes to brush your teeth, you know.
BRAND: Yeah. Well, there was a lot of concern that there would be some high-risk cutting involved, and so was that concern justified?
KESTENBAUM: I mean, there was a lot of concern in general about getting these pieces out. And it's true, there's an enormous amount of effort that goes into something that looks really simple. NASA has a lot of people on the ground rehearsing this, practicing, cutting things, deciding whether he should cut with his right hand or his left hand and what tools they should use. And the tools have to be certified for use in space. And then when they actually do it, they're--I don't know how many people watching over their shoulder and talking to them and saying, `Now do this. Now do that.' You can imagine, if you were building a house, it could take you a thousand years like that. But this is dangerous stuff.
And in 1995, there was a small piece of fabric that was sticking out and it really raised the temperature of some parts of the heat shield on re-entry. So they didn't want to take any chances. NASA's been criticized for, you know--for not being careful enough. So they're being very careful.
BRAND: And now, just as this one's solved, I understand there's another potential problem NASA is investigating?
KESTENBAUM: So there is. If Eileen Collins, who's the commander, could roll down the window and look out and look down, she would see a little puffed-out section. And it's right above the D in Discovery; the name of the space shuttle's actually written on the side there. And they don't really know what caused this. It's--there's an insulation blanket there that's sort of puffed out. It looks like, you know, the seam on a bed or something. It's puffed out a little bit. And they're looking at--their concern is that it could break off during re-entry and maybe damage the shuttle further back. It seems very unlikely it would be able to hit--it seems impossible it could the tiles because this is sort of on top of the space shuttle. But they're looking at maybe even doing another space walk and maybe they should cut it into shreds so that as they came down and passed through, you know, Mach 12 it would break up into small pieces and wouldn't really pose as much of a threat. NASA said they have a--it has a large roomful of folks gathered having this discussion right now.
BRAND: And finally, what else is happening on the space walk?
KESTENBAUM: There were a couple other things that they did on the space walk today. They put in something with tools on it for future missions, and they also set up a science experiment which is going to look--how materials--look at--study materials in outer space, and it'll radio back its results.
BRAND: NPR's David Kestenbaum. Thanks, David.
KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.
BRAND: And you can find out what the astronauts are doing every day and read what space historian Andrew Chaikin says about the future of the shuttle at our Web site, npr.org.
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