The two astronauts who wrestled a pair of 1,200-pound satellites out of orbit and into the space shuttle Discovery earlier this month said yesterday that that task was easier than dealing with small items such as tools and the tether wires that tied them to the shuttle's cargo bay.
"It's the little things like tethers that get wrapped around your legs that nibble away at you up there," Joseph P. Allen said at a post-mission news conference at Houston's Johnson Space Center. "As objects get smaller in space, they become more difficult to handle. It's really extraordinary how much easier it is to move massive objects like satellites."
Allen said the only trouble he and fellow astronaut Dale A. Gardner had in retrieving the Palapa and Westar VI satellites from orbit resulted from the men's tendency to grip the satellites too hard and move them too quickly in an effort to get them back and secured in Discovery's cargo bay in a limited amount of time.
"Once you get over that difficult spot where you think you have to have the satellite in a death grip, things are a lot easier," Allen said. "The other important lesson we learned was, don't bite off more than you can chew. Don't let the satellite move faster than you can stop it."
Despite Allen's blase comments about how easy it was to move the massive satellites out of orbit, before the historic salvage mission he and Gardner lifted weights and squeezed hard rubber balls to strengthen their arms and fingers.
"Don't let these two guys fool you," Discovery Commander Frederick H. Hauck said. "Both Joe and Dale went through a very strenuous upper-body program to make their arms and fingertips as strong as possible for this mission."
Gardner said he and Allen were so surprised that they had been able to locate the satellites and salvage them that during the final two days of the mission they kept checking to make sure the orbiters were still in the cargo bay.
"There were times when none of us could really believe we pulled it off," Gardner said.