Astronauts Test Shuttle Repair Methods

In this image made from NASA TV, astronaut Mike Fossum secures his safety tether during a spacewalk July 12, 2006. Engineers on the ground noticed the tether was not in a locked position and asked Fossum to return to the site and secure the lock in place at the beginning of the spacewalk.
Two spacewalking astronauts squeezed a putty-like sealant from a caulk gun Wednesday to test new repair techniques that might some day be necessary to save a damaged space shuttle.

"Easy motion on the trigger," astronaut Piers Sellers told his colleague, Mike Fossum, as they floated in Discovery's cargo bay and prepared for the tests on 12 deliberately damaged pieces of shuttle material.

"Good goo?" Sellers asked.

"Good goo!" Fossum responded.

The idea is to find out how the heat-resistant material performs in weightlessness, as well as how it would spread over cracks using a putty knife, CBS News space consultant William Harwood said.

More than an hour into the 6½-hour spacewalk, the astronauts ran into a brief delay when one of the safety tethers on Fossum became unlocked. There was no danger of the astronaut floating away since he is attached to the complex by more than one tether, and he was able to relock it.

NASA spokesman Rob Navias said problems like that happen on occasion. During Monday's spacewalk, Seller's safety-jet backpack almost came loose while he worked on repairs.

"They are double and in some cases, triple tethered at all times depending on where they are," Navias said. "Their chances of ever floating away are zero."

Wednesday's was the third and final spacewalk planned while Discovery is docked at the space station.

Using a caulk gun, the two squirted sealant onto 12 deliberately damaged reinforced carbon-carbon samples stored on a pallet in Discovery's open payload bay.

Find out more on Bill Harwood's Space Place.
Reinforced carbon-carbon is used to protect the shuttle's wing leading edges and nose cap from searing heat that can reach 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit during re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. A crack in Columbia's wing in 2003 allowed fiery gases to penetrate the shuttle, destroying Columbia high over Texas and killing its seven astronauts.

The repair technique was devised by NASA to make sure such a disaster never happens again.

Wearing bulky spacesuit gloves, Sellers and Fossum massaged the sealant with a putty knife to keep it from bubbling in zero gravity.

"Those bubbles behave differently in zero-g — they don't rise to the surface," Fossum told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "If you have too many bubbles trapped beneath the surface, then you're not going to get the repair you want."

Because of temperature concerns, the testing needs to be done when it's between 35 degrees and 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so the experiment will be conducted during the night portions of their orbit. The international space station circles the Earth every 1½ hours.

During interviews with The Associated Press and USA Today on Tuesday, Sellers described the third spacewalk as "a careful, meticulous lab experiment."

"The first two were kind of heavy lifting," Sellers said. "We were moving heavy pieces of equipment around and doing a lot of hard work."

During the first spacewalk last Saturday, Sellers and Fossum demonstrated that emergency shuttle repair work could be made from the end of a boom connected to a robotic arm. For the second spacewalk on Monday, they got the space station's crucial rail car working again and installed a pump compartment for the complex's cooling system.

Although the astronauts had trained for it, the third spacewalk was a last-minute addition, approved after Discovery was in space. It added an extra day to what is now a 13-day mission.

The spacewalks can be tiring, but Sellers said he and Fossum had a surefire way of regaining their energy after each trip outside the space station.

"Four cups of coffee later, we feel much better," Sellers cracked.