Some Spectacular Space-Age Repairs
By Tom Logsdon
"Houston, we have a problem."
"Say again, Apollo 13."
"We have a problem."
It was a problem all right! Seconds before, a violent explosion had ripped through the Apollo
Service Module, knocking out two of its three fuel cells and dumping the astronauts' precious
oxygen supplies into black space. At first they managed to remain fairly calm, but as their
crippled spacecraft hurtled on toward the moon, a fresh crisis suddenly unfolded: The lithium
hydroxide canisters in the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) and the Service Module turned out
to be noninterchangeable, and as a result, the air the astronauts were breathing was
rapidly becoming polluted. Fortunately, they were able to patch together a workable
connection to the canisters in the Service Module, thus making them usable in their
overcrowded "lifeboat" LEM. During the next few years other astronauts successfully
achieved a number of other spectacular spaceborne repairs, thus proving that astronauts
were definitely not merely along for the ride of "Spam in a can" as a cynical journalist once
wryly observed. When the micrometeoroid shield was ripped off the main body of the
Skylab, for instance, the astronauts erected a big cooling parasol to shield themselves
from the burning rays of the sun. On the next mission, astronauts Jack R. Lousma and
Owen K. Garriott remodeled the Skylab's parasol sunshade by erecting
two 55-foot metal poles to form a large A-frame tent over their freshly occupied home in
space. Other Skylab astronauts repaired an ailing battery, retrieved exposed film from the
Apollo telescope mount, and removed and replaced several gyroscopes used in stabilizing
their wobbling craft. These complicated tasks were all performed in full space suits outside
the protective envelope of the Skylab modules.
The retrieval and redeployment of the Solar Max satellite -- which was filmed with IMAX
cameras operated by other space shuttle astronauts -- provides another powerful illustration
of the skill and dexterity of humans in space.Ì Space-age robots have also performed in a
similarly impressive manner. For instance, when the television camera mounted on the
elbow of the shuttle's 50-foot robot arm sent back pictures of a big chunk of ice growing on
the outside of the waste-water vent on the shuttle orbiter, the Canadian robot arm helped the
astronauts execute a clever solution. Rather than risk possible damage to the shuttle's
delicate heat shield, should chunks of the ice break loose during reentry the astronauts
were instructed to use the robot arm like a big, heavy trip hammer to knock the ice loose.
On another mission, the robot arm was ready to release the Earth Radiation Budget
Satellite into the blackness of space. Unfortunately, during deployment, its solar arrays got
stuck in an awkward position so the astronauts used the robot arm to shake the satellite
vigorously. Then they held it up to the warming rays of the sun so its solar array could