CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- NASA ruled Monday that U.S. spacesuits on the international space station are unusable and ordered the crew to use Russian gear instead, adding considerable time and distance to a critical spacewalk next month.
The crew wanted to wear American suits and go out the much closer American hatch to get to a broken power supply unit on the exterior of the space station, but a cooling problem with the outfits made that impossible.
The mid-June spacewalk involves replacing a power control and circuit breaker box that last month shut down one of the gyroscopes that stabilize the space station and keep it tilted in the right direction. Only two of the four U.S. gyroscopes are working, the bare minimum; the first one shut down two years ago and cannot be replaced until NASA's shuttles fly again.
Cosmonaut Gennady Padalka and astronaut Mike Fincke spent the past few days, without success, trying to get water flowing properly to Padalka's American spacesuit for cooling. They could not get a spare U.S. spacesuit to work, either. So with only one good U.S. spacesuit on board, NASA managers decided to use Russian suits and conduct the spacewalk from the Russian side of the station.
The crewmen need to leave from the Russian side because the Russian spacesuits are not compatible with communication equipment in the U.S. air lock.
The Russian hatch is about 80 feet from the bad circuit breaker, located on the American side of the station. The U.S. hatch is 30 feet from the work site.
Fincke and Padalka will use an approximately 50-foot Russian-built telescoping boom to get part way there, and will be on the lookout for antennas and other protruding hazards.
"It's not as dangerous as a mine field by any means," Fincke said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's just going to take a fair amount of time to get there and to come back."
NASA engineers, meanwhile, are trying to figure out what is wrong with the two U.S. spacesuits, unused for more than a year. Replacement parts are limited aboard the station because of the grounding of the shuttle fleet since last year's Columbia disaster. A Russian cargo ship was scheduled to blast off Tuesday, carrying much-needed supplies.
Until shuttle flights resume next spring, at the earliest, station astronauts will likely be limited to four Russian spacesuits for outside work. Two are brand new; one malfunctioned during a spacewalk by the previous crew in February, but the cooling problem - a crimped water line - has since been fixed.
Fincke and Padalka, one month into a six-month stay, already had two Russian-based spacewalks on their schedule before a third was added to restore the powerless gyroscope.
"We know that there's a feeling down below that maybe there are a lot of problems up here, but to be honest with you, Gennady and I have talked about this. We really don't see it the same way that perhaps people on the ground do," Fincke said. Aside from the failed circuit breaker, the bad suits and some burned-out lights, "We feel really comfortable. We really like this space station. It is a masterpiece."
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