The salvage crew of the space shuttle made a clean sweep today when they snatched a second stray satellite out of orbit and secured it in Discovery for return to Earth on Friday.
As they had on Monday, astronauts Joseph P. Allen and Dale A. Gardner ventured out in their spacesuits and retrieved a 2,300-pound communications satellite that had been circling the Earth uselessly in the wrong orbit since its rockets misfired after a shuttle crew launched it last February.
It took Allen and Gardner 5 hours, 42 minutes to retrieve the Westar VI satellite and bolt it down next to the Palapa satellite they had picked up on Monday -- possibly the shortest $35 million salvage operation ever undertaken.
This time the job went more smoothly. Allen and Gardner went about their tasks more deliberately today, making fewer mistakes, taking less time to complete each job and suffering only one small setback instead of the numerous obstacles they encountered on their first trip outside the space shuttle.
The problem today was little more than a nuisance. At one point, Gardner suddenly lost the torque wrench he needed to fasten an A-frame to one end of the satellite to bolt it to Discovery's cargo-bay floor.
"My God, you just dropped your wrench," Allen exclaimed.
"Where did it go? Where did it go?" Gardner replied in panic.
Chuckling, Allen told him the wayward wrench was headed toward one of the shuttle bulkheads and Gardner took off after it like a rabbit.
Astronaut David M. Walker observed from inside the shuttle: "That's the quickest I've ever seen anybody move without getting hurt." Replied Gardner: "I just hate to lose my tools."
Reversing the roles they played on Monday, Gardner left the shuttle at 7:12 a.m. EST, wearing a jet-powered backpack and the same "stinger" device that Allen had worn around his waist to attach himself to Palapa. Once Gardner had fastened himself to Westar's bell-shaped engine nozzle, he pushed the satellite toward the open cargo bay while Allen waited with his feet planted in restraints attached to the end of the shuttle's mechanical arm.
This time, astronaut Anna L. Fisher directed the arm to give Allen more freedom of movement in securing the satellite than Gardner had had on Monday.
The result was that the astronauts retrieved Westar VI more quickly -- and left it in better shape -- than they had Palapa.
At the end of the spacewalk, Gardner said, "I think you'll find this satellite Westar to be very clean. We may have nicked it once or twice getting it aboard but that's all."
The engineers at the Johnson Space Center who planned the mission in little more than six months were delighted with the astronauts' two-for-two salvage record.
"You've got a handshake and a slap on the back for one super job," said astronaut Jerry L. Ross in Mission Control.
Replied Fisher from Discovery, "You've got one happy crew up here."
A little later, Flight Director Randy Stone told reporters: "We are extremely pleased with the performance of the crew on this mission. If there were a third satellite up there that needed rescue, we wouldn't hesitate one minute to have these guys go get it."
Today's salvage job seemed so easy and commonplace that Allen and Gardner stopped working once or twice to sightsee.
"We're going over several volcanoes right here," Allen said as Discovery crossed over the Yucatan Peninsula. "Three of them, in fact. Two are smoking and one looks like it's active."
Discovery Commander Frederick H. Hauck will now take over the job of flying Discovery back to Earth for a landing at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. The landing is scheduled at 6:36 a.m. EST Friday, with forecasters predicting that weather conditions should be excellent.
On Thursday morning, the crew will hold a 30-minute in-flight news conference with reporters on the ground. The first 15 minutes will be devoted to interviews with the hosts of the networks' early morning news shows. Under a new policy, NASA has designated television as its primary means of communicating with the American public.