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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. 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 unfold.

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