Sat, May 28, 2011 - Page 7 News List

US space shuttle program’s last spacewalk begins

Reuters, CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA

One of NASA’s most experienced space-walkers paired with its newest yesterday for the space shuttle program’s last servicing call outside the International Space Station.

Astronauts Mike Fincke and Greg Chamitoff floated outside the space station’s airlock at around 12:30am to begin the fourth and final spacewalk planned during shuttle Endeavour’s 16-day mission, the penultimate one in the 30-year-old US space shuttle program.

The six-and-a-half-hour spacewalk was the 159th in support of assembly and maintenance at the station, which began with the robotic attachment of the US Unity node with the Russian Zarya base block in 1998. Since then, the US$100 billion outpost, a project supported by 16 nations, has grown to more than 455,000kg of hardware orbiting 355km above Earth.

During the spacewalk, the ninth for Fincke and the second for Chamitoff, NASA will hit the 1,000 hour mark for spacewalk time by astronauts working outside the station.

“In the early shuttle program, a flight with one or two EVAs [extravehicular activities or spacewalks] was considered a pretty challenging mission. With the station missions that we fly today, with three and four EVAs the norm, the difference and the upgrade in the capability is just tremendous,” NASA station flight director Derek Hassman said.

NASA plans one last shuttle mission in July to deliver a year’s worth of supplies to the station before turning over Endeavour and sister ships Discovery and Atlantis to museums.

“I am sad to see the three space shuttles be rolled into a museum here shortly,” Endeavour commander Mark Kelly said during an in-flight news conference. “I think it’s a necessary step so we can go on and do some more exciting things.”

NASA plans to save the shuttles’ US$4 billion annual operating budget and develop new vehicles that can travel beyond the station’s orbit where the shuttles cannot go.

During yesterday’s spacewalk, Fincke and Chamitoff were scheduled to transfer the shuttle’s 15m inspection boom to the station so it can be used to extend the reach of the station’s robotic crane. With the boom’s installation, 11 years of station assembly by NASA comes to an end.

Endeavour and its six-man crew are due to leave the station late tomorrow.

The shuttle delivered the station’s premiere science experiment, the US$2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector, and spare parts.

Landing is scheduled for 2:32am on Wednesday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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