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NASA: Space Station Woes Almost Fixed

NASA is saying the computers that control parts of the international space station are nearly back to normal, after a major system failure yesterday.

The Russian computers operate the station's oxygen and water supplies and its orientation. Scientists aren't sure what went wrong. They say they've never seen that type of failure before.

Flight controllers in Moscow were able to re-establish some communication with the computers overnight, and Russian engineers were working Thursday to restore the rest of the system, NASA space station flight director Holly Ridings said.

"They've made a lot of progress," she said. "There are some cleanup steps to do still and some investigation."

NASA says Russian engineers are looking into what caused the failure. They think the problem was electrical, rather than a glitch in the software.

"The computers go down from time to time," CBS News space consultant Bill Harwood said. However, Harwood added "they've never had a situation where they could not get them to reboot."

The station is operated primarily by the Russian and U.S. space agencies, with contributions from the Canadian, European and Japanese space agencies.

"We have plenty of resources, so we have plenty of time to sort this out," said Mike Suffredini, NASA manager of the space station program.

But the computer failure could extend space shuttle Atlantis' mission by at least a day and, in a worst-case scenario, force the space station's three crew members to return to Earth early if the computers are not fixed.

"This is something that absolutely has to be resolved before the shuttle leaves next week," Harwood said.

Atlantis' mission had already been extended from 11 to 13 days so that astronauts can go on a spacewalk to repair a thermal blanket covering an engine pod that peeled up during launch.

Suffredini said he expected the problem to be fixed in the next couple of days. In a worst-case scenario, if at least one of the computers was not operating after the shuttle left, the space station's three crew members could return to Earth, he said.

Thrusters on the docked space shuttle, along with the space station's gyroscopes, have been fired periodically to help maintain the space station's positioning since the computers failed earlier this week.

The space station needs the maneuvering thrusters controlled by the Russian computers for docking and avoiding space debris.

Without the Russian oxygen-machine running, the space station has a 56-day supply of oxygen left. "If we are in that position, we have an option to depart," Suffredini said.

Russian engineers think the computers' failure could have been triggered by a power source. The space station earlier this week got a new pair of solar arrays that were delivered by Atlantis and unfolded Tuesday to help provide power.

During a spacewalk on Wednesday, astronauts Patrick Forrester and Steven Swanson started to bring to life a rotating joint that will allow the new pair of solar arrays to track the sun. Astronauts will finish prepping the joint on another spacewalk.

Forrester and Swanson also helped retract a 115-foot wing of an old solar array that will be folded up into a storage box and moved to another location later this year.

Only 13 of the array's 31 sections were folded up, so flight controllers and astronauts will try to fold up the rest of the solar wing by remote commands on Thursday.

NASA managers decided Wednesday to use a spacewalk on Friday to repair a torn thermal blanket located over an engine pod near the shuttle's tail.

The astronauts will secure the blanket using staples found in the shuttle's medical kit and loop-headed pins that come from the shuttle's tile repair kit. If those methods do not work, NASA flight controllers will have the astronauts sew it into place using a stainless steel wire and an instrument that resembles a small needle.

Engineers don't think the damaged section of the thermal blanket, which protects part of the shuttle from the blazing heat of re-entry, would endanger the spacecraft during landing. But it could cause enough damage to require schedule-busting repairs.

NASA has focused intensely on any problems that could jeopardize a shuttle's re-entry into Earth's atmosphere since shuttle damage resulted in the 2003 Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts.