CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Spacewalking astronauts worked at giving the International Space Station’s big robot arm, the Canadarm 2, a new hand Thursday.
Commander Randy Bresnik and Mark Vande Hei tackled the job on the first of three NASA spacewalks planned over the next two weeks.
The latching mechanism on one end of the 58-foot robot arm malfunctioned in August. It needs to be replaced before an Orbital ATK supply ship launches in November.
Within an hour-and-a-half, the spacewalkers had unbolted the degraded mechanism from the arm and turned their attention to the replacement part.
This bundle of latches – more than a meter long – is used to grab visiting spacecraft, and provides power and data. The arm can also move like an inchworm across the space station by grabbing onto special fixtures.
The Government of Canada invested $108 million in designing and building the first Canadarm, and NASA ordered four more after the first proved so useful. Canadarm flew on 90 missions between 1981 and 2011, helping with things like setting up the Hubble Telescope, retrieving a stranded communications satellite and building the space station.
The Canadarm was retired in 2011 when NASA ended the space shuttle program, though the bigger Canadarm 2 remains in space as part of the International Space Station.
The Canadian-built arm has now been in orbit for 16 years. Engineers attribute the recent trouble to wear and tear. The two latching mechanisms, one on each end of the arm, have been used nearly 400 times.
The latching mechanism on the opposite end will be replaced early next year.
It was the first spacewalk for Vande Hei, a rookie astronaut who arrived at the orbiting outpost a few weeks ago.
“Congratulations, my friend, on becoming the 221st human to exit in your own personal spacecraft into the void of space,” said Bresnik, a veteran spacewalker. “That’s it for all of the tender moments you’ll get from me.”
“Now back to work.”
“Exactly,” Mission Control radioed. “Slow and steady, and go get ‘er done.”
As the duo worked, they marveled over the views of Earth below and the full moon above.
Six men currently live at the 250-mile-high outpost: three Americans, two Russians and an Italian.
On Wednesday, they marked the 60th anniversary of the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, and the beginning of the Space Age.
-With files from Leslie Young