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Posted at 02:44 PM ET, 07/12/2011

Final shuttle spacewalk: sublime, and yet a little dull

Today marks the final spacewalk of the space shuttle era, another in a long line of lasts during the farewell mission of Atlantis.

Watching it, I couldn’t avoid a guilty thought: As exhilarating as spacewalks must be for the walkers, the missions fail as entertainment for viewers.

Today, a pair of astonauts did some transfer work, stowing a broken ammonia pump from the International Space Station in the payload bay of Atlantis, then carrying a boxy robotic experiment module back to the station, where Mike Fossum attached it to a girder.

Fossum and fellow spacewalker Ron Garan aren't members of the shuttle crew, but rather residents of the International Space Station. The smaller-than-usual shuttle team had plenty of other work on the mission, NASA said.

The six-hour excursion – still ongoing at this moment – marks the astounding 160th spacewalk at the space station. Building the football field-size orbiting lab has taken a lot of module-wrangling and hose-clamping.

Around noon, as Fossum rode the station's robot arm, he saw a flash of lightning 245 miles below, near New Zealand. “Pretty cool,” he said. I'll bet.

But watching the spacewalk on NASA TV isn't nearly so much fun. After about an hour, my brain went a little numb. Indiscernible technobabble punctuated long stretches of silence.

During the action, as it were, micromanaging ground controllers continually prodded the spacewalkers.

“If you're ready, you can retrieve your waist tether, Mike.”

“You're about 5 minutes to sunset, so you might want to get your visors up and your lights on.”

“Inspect your gloves, Mike.”

All this bolt-turning and robot arm-riding doesn't make for great television. But I can imagine how for the spacewalkers these are peak experiences unlikely to be equaled in their lifetimes.

The first American spacewalker, Ed White, expressed as much. On June 3, 1965, White floated outside the Gemini 4 capsule. A glove followed him out the hatch and later burned up in the atmosphere – a fate avoided by White thanks to a 25-foot umbilical. Once outside, White zoomed around the capsule by firing a hand-held oxygen gun. Wheeeeeeeee!


Ed White had a blast as the first American spacewalker. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Three months earlier, cosmonaut Alexey Leonov had become the first human satellite, proving that a man could float free in space and return to tell the tale. Upon hearing the news of another space milestone falling to the Reds, NASA drew up plans for White's extravehicular activity.

It was a short ride. Twenty-three minutes after floating out the hatch, those pesky ground controllers (omnipresent for every spacewalk) ordered White to come back inside. “This is the saddest moment of my life,” White said as he re-entered the Gemini. Those 23 minutes must have winked by.

(A note: White survived the spacewalk but died in the line of duty in January 1967. Along with Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, White burned to death in a horrific launchpad fire during a test of the Apollo 1 capsule. To save weight, NASA had decided to pressurize the moon capsules with pure oxygen – and a fire ensued. NASA was never able to determine the exact cause of the blaze – the capsule was pretty well trashed – but the accident forced the agency to make a safety upgrades to the Apollo capsules. The three deaths were the first in the American space program.)

For my money, the coolest EVAs of the shuttle era occurred in 1984, when astronauts for the first time flew free as human spacecraft. No tethers. No lines. No way! Bruce McCandless was the first to pilot the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), a futuristic jetpack steered by handheld joysticks.

You can watch the MMU fly free in this video narrated by National Air & Space Museum curator Valerie Neal:

Twenty-four thrusters spun and accelerated the tiny spacecraft in any direction. NASA developed the MMU because it was way cool, but the cover story was that it would help astronauts retrieve errant satellites.

After just three shuttle missions, though, NASA retired the MMU in 1984. The shuttle’s robot arm did the job of plucking satellites from space just fine – and without risking an astronaut.

The MMU now hangs in the National Air & Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy facility out near Dulles. Next year, shuttle Discovery will join it at the museum – reminders of a time when our spaceward ambitions aimed a little higher, and when spacewalking held a bit more excitement.

By  |  02:44 PM ET, 07/12/2011

 
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