Speedy Spacewalkers Ahead Of Pace As Next Repair Moved To Tuesday

The ghosts of spacewalks past did not haunt the quick-working pair of astronauts who began replacing a faulty ammonia pump on the International Space Station today (Dec. 21).

Unlike a difficult spacewalk to do a similar repair in 2010, NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins were so far ahead of schedule that they began doing tasks scheduled for the second in their expected trio of spacewalks.

In better news yet for the spacewalkers, a water leak in Hopkins’ spacesuit this past July — one that sent astronauts scrambling back to the airlock for safety — did not happen again, showing that the part replacement NASA directed had worked. An unrelated water issue in Mastracchio’s suit, however, made agency officials decide to delay the next spacewalk one day to Dec. 24.

The pump replacement is needed to put the space station at full fighting weight. Since Dec. 11, science experiments and other non-critical systems have been offline since a valve in the pump broke. While the astronauts are in no immediate danger, one of their two cooling loops is shut down and there is not a big margin of safety if the other loop fails.

Since this is NASA’s first spacewalk since the leaky suit was last used, the agency emphasized two new measures it has to protect the astronauts if another leak occurs. The first is a new helmet absorption pad (HAP) to soak up any water in the helmet. The second is a pipe — a snorkel — that would let astronauts breathe air from another part of the suit, if required.

But with every “HAP check” that CapCom and astronaut Doug Wheelock called up to the astronauts today, they reported that the suits were dry and everything was fine. The new water issue happened after the spacewalk, while the astronauts were repressurizing the airlock. In a statement, NASA said water could have entered Mastracchio’s suit sublimator and decided to switch him to a backup suit as a precaution.

The spacewalk tasks themselves, however, went far more swiftly than problems Wheelock experienced in 2010, such as when an ammonia line on the pump refused to unhook as required and caused a lengthy delay. NASA made some changes (such as lowering the pressure on the lines, as Wheelock told Universe Today), and this time, Mastracchio powered through the line and electrical removals. The astronauts quickly moved 1.5 hours of schedule and then beyond. A few stray ammonia flakes hit Mastracchio’s suit, but not enough to cause concerns about contamination since the traces of substance baked off in the sun as he worked.

“I don’t know if you believe in miracles, but I got it on the first try,” Mastracchio radioed early in the spacewalk as he got a tricky part of a Canadian robotic arm foot restraint threaded. Mastracchio rode the arm for much of the spacewalk while Hopkins was the “free floating” colleague hovering and doing other tasks nearby.

NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio (right) pulls an 800-pound ammonia pump module out of its spot on the space station Dec. 21, 2013. At left is fellow NASA astronaut and Expedition 38 member Mike Hopkins. Credit: NASA TV
NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio (right) pulls an 800-pound ammonia pump module out of its spot on the space station Dec. 21, 2013. At left is fellow NASA astronaut and Expedition 38 member Mike Hopkins. Credit: NASA TV

The most spectacular television shots occurred towards the end of the five-hour, 28-minute spacewalk when Mastracchio carefully wrestled the 800-pound ammonia pump module out of its spot on the space station while riding aboard Canadarm2. (Controlling the arm was Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, guided by CapCom and fellow Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide on the ground.)

After he stowed the module, Mission Control gave the astronauts the go-ahead to put in the spare. Mastracchio, however, said he felt it was best for the astronauts to leave it for next time. While the pair have three spacewalks (including today’s) slated to finish the task, it’s possible they could wrap it up in two — but only if things go as smoothly as this time.

The next spacewalk will take place Dec. 24 at 7:10 a.m. EST (12:10 p.m. UTC), and will be available on NASA Television. We’ll keep you up to speed as the next spacewalk occurs. Today’s excursion was Mastracchio’s seventh and Hopkins’ first.

NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins of Expedition 38 worked outside for more than five hours Dec. 21 to begin replacing a faulty ammonia pump on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV
NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins of Expedition 38 worked outside for more than five hours Dec. 21, 2013 to begin replacing a faulty ammonia pump on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV

 

Watch Live As Astronauts Fix The Space Station Saturday

There’s a cooling problem on station, and two astronauts are ready to head outside to fix it. NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio (a six-time spacewalker) and Mike Hopkins (a rookie) are expected to spend 6.5 hours “outside” starting at 7:10 a.m. EST (12:10 p.m. UTC) on Saturday. On robotics will be Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, who has operated every bit of robotics currently on station.

Click to watch Expedition 38’s crew action live above. (If for some reason the stream is not working, an alternate link is available here.) We’ll have full coverage of the spacewalk after it happens, too.

For a walkthrough of what’s going to happen, NASA handily provided a video that you can see below the jump. We also have links to all of our coverage so far.

In a nutshell, here’s what happened: a cooling loop shut down automatically on station Dec. 11 when the loop got too cold. NASA traced the problem to a faulty flow control valve inside of the pump. As agency officials prepared for a spacewalk just in case, NASA attempted to fix the valve and then control an alternate one from the ground.

However, the station is entering a time when there will be a lot of sun shining on it, making dockings and spacewalks difficult. To be prudent, NASA decided to do a spacewalk now and replace the pump. To keep the astronauts safe if another spacesuit leak happens again, the agency has introduced soaker pads and snorkels to the spacesuits.

Here’s what’s going to happen during the three spacewalks that are scheduled for Saturday, Monday (Dec. 23) and if necessary, Wednesday (Dec. 25), according to lead U.S. Spacewalk Officer Allison Bolinger:

After Facing Down Ammonia Leak, This Astronaut Will Help Crew During Spacewalks

When you learned to drive a car for the first time, remember how comforting it was to have an experienced driver beside you, able to anticipate the hazards and keep you on schedule?

That’s surely how the Expedition 38 crew feels about one of the voices “on the line” as two astronauts prepare to venture outside to replace a crippled ammonia pump. One of the “CapComs” or people communicating with the crew on Saturday, Monday and Wednesday will be astronaut Doug Wheelock — who just happens to be known for co-replacing a broken ammonia tank himself in 2010. (The other CapCom is Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide, who will chat through robotic procedures with Koichi Wakata).

Wheelock is the visible edge of hundreds — likely thousands — of people working feverishly at NASA and its international partners this past week to get the spacewalks ready through pool simulations, a virtual reality lab and other means. Several backup and non-critical space station systems are offline because of that pump, which has to regulate temperatures properly for vital electronics to work.

“I am their choreographer,” Wheelock told Universe Today of his plan for the astronauts. While spacewalkers Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio already know what they are supposed to do when, Wheelock said he will be “their eyes and ears on the timeline.” If something needs to be stopped or changed, he’ll help them figure out what to do next.

NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock anchored to Canadarm2 during an August 2010 spacewalk. He and Tracy Caldwell Dyson ventured outside three times during Expedition 24 to swap out and replace a broken ammonia pump. Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock anchored to Canadarm2 during an August 2010 spacewalk. He and Tracy Caldwell Dyson ventured outside three times during Expedition 24 to swap out and replace a broken ammonia pump. Credit: NASA

Wheelock and fellow astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson had to spring into action themselves in August 2010. A pump in the same location broke, forcing space station systems offline and requiring them to go outside a few days later. With astronaut Shannon Walker piloting Canadarm2, the astronauts accomplished their tasks in three spacewalks — but encountered obstacles along the way.

During the first spacewalk, as Wheelock disconnected lines from the broken pump, he not only faced a pipe that wouldn’t let go, but a shower of ammonia snowflakes. That was “what got me on the EVA [extra-vehicular activity],” he recalled. That’s why NASA plans to lower the line pressure on the cooling system before the astronauts head outside this time. Normally the lines are pressurized at 360 pounds per square inch, but they’ll be lowered to 120 psi through commands from the ground.

Other “lessons learned” are more recent. Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano was wearing a NASA spacesuit in July when he experienced a water leak in his helmet, putting him at risk and terminating the spacewalk early. This will be the first spacewalk since that time. NASA believes it has replaced the part of the suit that failed, but the agency has new backups in place. Hopkins and Mastracchio will have soaker pads in their helmets as well as a “snorkel”-like device, or tube that will let them breathe oxygen from a different part of the suit if water flows into the helmet again.

Allison Bolinger, NASA's lead U.S. spacewalk officer, holds up a snorkel-like device that astronauts began using in spacesuits in December 2013. The pipe (modified from spacesuit parts) is supposed to be a backup if a helmet fills with water, as what occurred during a July 2013 spacewalk. Credit: NASA (YouTube/screenshot)
Allison Bolinger, NASA’s lead U.S. spacewalk officer, holds up a snorkel-like device that astronauts began using in spacesuits in December 2013. The pipe (modified from spacesuit parts) is supposed to be a backup if a helmet fills with water, as what occurred during a July 2013 spacewalk. Credit: NASA (YouTube/screenshot)

So what are some key parts of the spacewalks to look for? Wheelock identified a few spots.

‘HAP’ check. That soaker pad is called a “helmet absorption pad”, and as a matter of course the astronauts will be asked to verify that the pad is not wet at the same time that they also check their gloves for tears (another lesson learned from a past spacewalk.) So you will hear Wheelock calling “HAP check” from time to time to the crew.

Unlatching and latching the ammonia connectors on the pumps. Because this is when leaks are most likely to occur — posing a risk to Mastracchio, who is performing the work — Wheelock is going to do a “challenge and response” procedure. He will read up the step, the astronaut will verify it and will do the work. There will be “a lot more chatter on the [voice] loop” during those times, Wheelock said, with everyone on the ground watching through Mastracchio’s head camera feed (visible at the front of the room) to see what is happening. “There will be a lot of people standing in Mission Control at that point,” he joked, himself included.

Leak procedures. If ammonia does start to shower out, Mastracchio will quickly close the valve and wait a few minutes as it could be just residual ammonia in the line. If that doesn’t work out, Mastracchio is trained on a procedure to attach a device to the front end of the connector and move a lever that prevents a cavity in the line from filling with ammonia. Then he can open the valve again, bleed out the ammonia that’s left over and keep going.

NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio inspects two spacesuits to be used during spacewalks in December 2013. The spacewalks were to remove and replace a faulty ammonia pump. Credit: NASA TV
NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio inspects two spacesuits to be used during spacewalks in December 2013. The spacewalks were to remove and replace a faulty ammonia pump. Credit: NASA TV

Decontamination procedures. The ammonia makes a distinctive “ping” when it hits the helmet, says Wheelock (who yes, heard that happen himself.) You can also see ammonia on the suit, he said, as it looks a bit like candle wax and obscures the stitching. All of which to say, NASA has procedures in place if the agency suspects or can confirm large amounts of ammonia got on Mastracchio’s suit. (Small amounts would essentially fleck off in the sun.) Hopkins, who will be out of the line of fire, can do a thorough inspection of Mastracchio and scrape off any ammonia with a warm metal tool — without hurting the suit underneath. The astronauts could also do a “bakeout” in the airlock — 30 minutes if suspected, an hour if confirmed — where they will sit with the hatch open and wait for any ammonia to sublimate off the suit. Once they close the hatch, the astronauts can verify if the ammonia is gone using Drager tubes, which have gold crystals inside that turn “purpleish blue” in the presence of ammonia, Wheelock said.

Margin calls. Because NASA needs to make sure the astronauts have 30 to 60 minutes to decontaminate at the end of their spacewalks, officials will preserve a margin of oxygen available for the astronauts to walk through that work. So it’s possible the agency may terminate a spacewalk before all tasks are completed just because they need that bit of margin at the end.

To learn more, Wheelock has been answering questions occasionally on his Twitter account from followers, and you can read through what he posts when he finds the time. Universe Today will also cover the spacewalks (currently planned for Saturday, Monday and Wednesday) as they occur.

This Hilarious Conversation With A Space Robot Makes Kirobo Seem Almost Human

Just how human-sounding is Kirobo, the first talking robot on the station? This amusing conversation, recorded on the International Space Station and broadcast on a Toyota YouTube channel, shows a pint-sized robot that not only responds to questions, but also gestures and moves around in a scary person-like way.

As Kirobo chats with Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata — who is excellent at deadpan, by the way — the two discussed matters such as how the Earth looks from space, the Japanese robotic arm Kibo and — right at the end — the most important difference between Kirobo and his backup, Mirata.

We don’t want to spoil the joy of the conversation for you by repeating what Kirobo says, but let’s just say there’s something special about watching a Japanese space robot make a reference to the first landing on the moon, which was hailed as a huge technological achievement when it happened in 1969. 

The 13.4-inch (0.34 meter) Kirobo is sponsored by Toyota and the University of Tokyo and is supposed to be able to pick up on the facial expressions of crewmates. The robot will be working closely with Wakata during Expedition 38 and then Expedition 39, when Wakata assumes command of station.

One goal is to see how well humans and semi-autonomous robots can work together in space. To see Kirobo’s first words from station, check out our past story from September.

Astronauts Get Three Spacewalks As An Early Christmas Present

The week before Christmas will be full of spacewalk preparations for Expedition 38 as they get ready to remove and replace a malfunctioning pump aboard the International Space Station.

NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins will participate in the spacewalks, NASA said today (Dec. 17), with Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata handling robotic operations during the Dec. 21, Dec. 23 and Dec. 25 activities.

A new pump is needed to regulate temperatures in an external ammonia cooling loop that shut down automatically Wednesday (Dec. 11) when it got too cold. The loop keeps equipment at the right temperature on station. While the astronauts have been fine for the past week, several redundant systems and some experiments are offline. Luckily for the crew, other astronauts previously installed three spare pumps on station, which you can see in the graphic below.

Locations of spare pumps on the International Space Station as of December 2013. Credit: NASA
Locations of spare pumps on the International Space Station as of December 2013. Credit: NASA

Spacewalks are always a risky proposition, and NASA has not conducted any since Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano experienced a leak in an American spacesuit in July. As such, the agency spent several days trying to fix the cooling loop by other means.

A faulty control valve made the pump malfunction on Wednesday. The valve normally mixes warm ammonia that flows past external radiators on station with cooler ammonia that was put through those radiators. NASA first tried to control the valve from the ground, then focused its attention on an isolation control valve upstream from the pump that the agency hoped could serve as a backup. The isolation valve, however, was only designed to be closed or opened fully — not positioned in between.

As of 11 a.m. EST (4 p.m. UTC) today, NASA was working on a software patch to try to freeze the valve in different positions to manually regulate the flow of ammonia.

“The fidelity that we have here on the ground to precisely control when that valve starts moving and stops is on the order of about 0.2 seconds, 0.3 seconds, somewhere in that range. We really need the fidelity to be much higher than that,” said Judd Frieling, the Expedition 38 lead flight director, in an update on NASA Television.

“We need it to be on the order of 0.1 seconds. So the way we can reliably produce that is by putting some software on the computers on board that basically allows us to get that finer control. So engineers and coders, overnight, have been working on a software — we call it a patch — software fix, to one of the computers that controls that valve.”

NASA planned to upload the patch to the station this afternoon (EST) to see if it was possible to control the isolation valve by telling it to move, then cutting the power when it got to a certain spot. The agency did not say how successful that fix was, but will likely address that in a media briefing tomorrow at 3 p.m. EST (8 p.m. UTC).

Cooling problems have occurred on station before. The most recent failure was a leak in May, which the Expedition 35 crew fixed just days before some of the astronauts went home. A more prominent failure on the same cooling loop occurred in 2010, when Expedition 24 astronauts performed three spacewalks to replace a faulty pump.

Each of the three emergency spacewalks this month (Dec. 21, 23 and 25) will start at 7:10 a.m. EST (12:10 p.m. UTC) and take about 6.5 hours to perform, NASA added. The activities will be carried live on NASA Television, with coverage starting about an hour before each spacewalk is expected to begin.

Two Astronauts Who Beat The Odds To Get Into Space

Getting into space is never a guarantee for an astronaut. Heck, getting into an astronaut program can be tough, as Koichi Wakata and Rick Mastracchio told Universe Today.

The crewmates on Expedition 38/39 are supposed to head to the International Space Station in November. But they beat incredible odds to be selected in the first place. Wakata, who is with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), didn’t even have an astronaut program to join when he was a kid. Mastracchio (from NASA) did, but it took him nine years’ worth of applications to get in.

“When I was five years old, I saw the Apollo [11] lunar landing,” Wakata said. “This was before I was going to school, kindergarten timeframe. But there was no astronaut program in Japan, so I thought it was physically beyond my reach. It was something I longed for.”

With no Japanese astronauts to look up to, Wakata put himself in a related career: airplane engineering. Between 1989 and 1992, he worked as an aircraft structural engineer for Japan Airlines. It was while he was in this career that he saw a newspaper advertisement recruiting the first Japanese astronauts. He applied and was let in, first try.

JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata takes photos of Earth during Expedition 19/20 in 2009. Credit: NASA
JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata takes photos of Earth during Expedition 19/20 in 2009. Credit: NASA

“I was lucky to get into this program,” Wakata said. And now he has a new milestone in his sights: becoming the first Japanese commander of the International Space Station during Expedition 39. Wakata’s space experience includes operating every piece of robotics hardware currently on orbit, from the Canadarm to the Japanese Kibo robotic arm.

He also has extensive leadership training behind him, which helped him prepare for command. He was in charge of an underwater lab (called NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO) in 2006. Wakata also received National Outdoor Leadership training, which puts people in wilderness situations to test their skills.

Finally, Wakata also watched closely what his own spaceflight commanders did. He is a big admirer of Brian Duffy, who flew four times in space — including two of Wakata’s missions. “I learned a lot from him and I try to imitate what he did,” Wakata said.

Unlike Wakata, his crewmate Mastracchio was born in a country with a well-established astronaut program. That also meant, however, a lot of competition. Mastracchio made applications practically every year between 1987 and 1996. Every time he was turned down, he would look for a way to make himself better for the next round.

Rick Mastracchio takes a selfie during a spacewalk on STS-118. NASA's web page says the purpose was to have a photo of his helmet visor. Credit: NASA
Rick Mastracchio takes a selfie during a spacewalk on STS-118. NASA’s web page says the purpose was to have a photo of his helmet visor. Credit: NASA

“I tried not to do things to become an astronaut. I tried to do things that I thought would be interesting,” Mastracchio said. At the same time, those interesting things happened to be items that astronauts would find useful.

Hired in 1987 for Rockwell Shuttle Operations Company in Houston, Mastracchio then moved to NASA in 1990 as an engineer in the flight crew operations directorate. He earned a masters degree in physical science at the nearby University of Houston-Clear Lake in 1991. Mastracchio also got a pilot’s license.

Around the same time of another unsuccessful selection in 1994, Mastracchio switched jobs and became a flight controller in the front room of Mission Control. It’s hard to say if that made the difference, he acknowledged, but for what it’s worth he was selected in 1996. “I just gained more experience, over time, in different jobs,” he said.

Mastracchio has since flown three times into space, performing six spacewalks in that time. There are no further “outside” activities planned for him during Expedition 38/39, but he has trained as a backup just in case.