Space shuttle Discovery's astronauts have rewired the space station, managed three spacewalks, and now completed the most difficult task of their mission: getting a stubborn, solar array folded up during an impromptu fourth spacewalk.
The astronauts were scheduled to say goodbye to the station Tuesday after their latest and greatest success, a spacewalk completed with none of the ground training they had for previous spacewalks, and with only a few days of planning by engineers at Mission Control.
U.S. astronaut Robert Curbeam and Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang of the European Space Agency worked for more than five hours during a 6 1/2-hour spacewalk Monday to get the last section of a 115-foot-long solar array folded up into a box at the international space station.
"You guys are superheroes!" astronaut Megan McArthur in Mission Control told Discovery commander Mark Polansky and his crew.
The spacewalking pair used a scraper to try to get the array unstuck, shook the panel and used pliers to tighten the wire that folds it up. It was a stop-and-go process with the spacewalkers fiddling with the arrays and then astronauts inside the space station sending remote-controlled commands to fold up the array with the words, "Ready, ready, retract."
Curbeam worked from the end of the space station's robotic arm. His fourth trip outside the station during Discovery's visit set a record for the most spacewalks in a single shuttle mission. His spacewalk also moved him up to fifth place on the list of astronauts and cosmonauts with the most time spacewalking.
Workers in Mission Control applauded when the final section fell into the box, although a wire loop hung out. Curbeam worked about half an hour longer to get it rolled back in and the box latched.
"There's just no replacing eyeballs and hands in space," said flight director John Curry. "It's another great day in space."
The array was part of the space station's temporary power source. The space agency had to retract it to make room for a newly installed array that will be part of the space station's permanent power source.
During their 13-day mission, Discovery's astronauts have rewired the station, installed a 2-ton, $11 million addition to the orbiting space lab and replaced space station crew member Thomas Reiter of Germany with American astronaut Sunita Williams, who will spend the next six months in orbit.
The extra, unplanned spacewalk delayed Discovery's undocking by a day and pushed back the shuttle's return to Earth to Friday from Thursday. Because of supply limits, Discovery needs to be on the ground by Saturday.
"There's never a bad day in space," Polansky said earlier this week when asked about the extra day.
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