Stennis helps space power

Published 4:52 pm Thursday, February 1, 2007

NASA conducted another successful mission to the International Space Station to install another solar array truss and rewire the space station to a permanent power supply.

Unforeseen problems added another day of space walking to the bill as another solar array folding problem took the ingenuity of astronauts to remedy.

The main mission of December’s launch to the International Space Station was to reconfigure the electrical system to its permanent configuration, add another solar array and drop off mission specialist Sunita Williams.

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The addition of the extra array will help make way for more modules that can be inhabited by astronauts with the increased power supply, said commander Mark Polansky. Hopefully in the future the space station will be able to accommodate six instead of three long term occupants who will stay in about six month increments, Polansky said.

Another completed mission involved retracting a solar array, which collectively ate up about two days of work time and required crew ingenuity, Polansky said. Part of that ingenuity was to use existing space station tools and combine them with Velcro and non conducive tape to remedy the problem, he said.

Space Shuttle Discovery’s December launch was unique in that it was the first night launch in a few years, said Stennis Space Center Director Dr. Richard Gilbrech.

“I was very thrilled to see us back in night launching after a three year hiatus,” Gilbrech said.

Taking off in the Shuttle during launch was like any other, day or night, Polansky said. However there was a feeling of awe as the astronauts entered orbit in spite of their busy work schedule.

“You got two seconds to say ‘that’s really something, we’re in space,’ and then get to work,” said Commander Mark Polansky.

Docking with the space station took place at speed of about an inch a second and once docked the crew stayed for a total of ten days, mission specialist Nicholas Patrick said.

Unsticking the problematic solar array took some doing because the crew was not supposed to touch the array since it holds a high electrical charge and the all oxygen environment in the space suits makes for a potentially explosive situation, mission specialist Robert Curbeam said. Mission specialist Chister Fuglesang estimated the solar array produces about 160 volts of DC power. Instead the astronauts tried shaking the truss to loosen the solar array but eventually had to rely on the modified tools, Fuglesang said.

A secondary mission of Shuttle Discovery’s latest trip to the space station involved dropping off some science experiments for the Department of Defense, Polansky said. While he could not give specifics about the nature of the experiment Polansky said those experiments were supposed to help with tracking. Tracking of what, he could not say.

Landing was a bone jarring experience. Polansky said that while the shuttle came in to the landing strip smoothly the landing speed they were traveling was at 205 knots.

“When the nose wheel hits the runway, it hits the runway,” Polansky said.

The problems the astronauts faced during their last few missions prove why it is best to put humans in orbit as opposed to robots. Robots don’t think critically to come up with solutions to problems, Gilbrech said. Human ingenuity comes at the price of risking the lives of the astronauts however.

“Everything we do to send people in space has risks,” Polansky said.

Polansky said those risks could not be taken without the men and women throughout the nation, such as at Stennis, who work hard to build and test the equipment that brings the astronauts into orbit.

The next NASA shuttle mission to the space station is scheduled for sometime in March.