Astronauts Fix Jammed Solar Array On Station

By Rasha Madkour
Associated Press Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

HOUSTON, Dec. 18 -- Two spacewalking astronauts finished folding up a stubborn accordion-like solar array Monday, resolving the only complication in the space shuttle Discovery's otherwise smooth mission to the international space station.

Robert L. Curbeam and Christer Fuglesang managed to get the last section of the 115-foot array folded into a box about five hours into the spacewalk. It was the fourth venture outside for Discovery's astronauts during their visit to the orbiting outpost.

Workers in Mission Control applauded when the final section fell into the box. Curbeam radioed back that a wire was still loose, and he continued trying to fold it up.

"You have a magic touch, Christer," Discovery commander Mark L. Polansky told Fuglesang.

The 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 astronauts inside the space station repeatedly sending remote-controlled commands to fold up the array.

The addition of Monday's impromptu spacewalk forced NASA to delay Discovery's return home by a day to Friday.

The electricity-generating array became stuck Wednesday in the halfway-retracted position as it was being folded up by remote control. After repeated efforts to get it to retract -- including attempts to shake it loose by having an astronaut exercise vigorously aboard the space station -- NASA decided to have two cosmic mechanics fix it.

It was Curbeam's fourth spacewalk of the mission, the most by any astronaut during a single shuttle flight.

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.

The array posed no danger in the half-retracted position, but NASA wanted to take advantage of the extra hands on deck to get it taken care of now instead of asking the space station crew members to make a spacewalk.

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