Astronauts Cruise Around on Mini-Jetpacks

Two astronauts floated outside space shuttle Discovery today for a fourth straight day of spacewalking chores and one fun job — test-driving a mini-jetpack.

Jeff Wisoff and Michael Lopez-Alegria took turns jetting over and around space shuttle Discovery’s payload bay to test the small nitrogen-powered rocket backpack that could someday save an astronaut’s life.

They were on a leash the whole time. But it was a loose leash.

“Jeff, what’s it like being a satellite?” one of the astronauts inside Discovery asked as Wisoff propelled himself 240 miles above Earth.

“Pretty awesome,” Wisoff replied. Later he murmured: “Like falling in love.”

Test Drive Above Earth

NASA insisted the spacewalkers be tethered for the jetpack demonstration. Because Discovery is docked to the space station, the shuttle could not immediately dash after the astronauts if their jetpacks failed.

The miniature jetpack, called Safer, is meant for use on a space station. Without the jetpack, an astronaut could drift away and become lost in space.

Safer is much smaller and less powerful than the Buck Rogers-like jetpack that was used a few times by shuttle astronauts in 1984. That device has long since been retired.

Earlier today, the two astronauts completed the Discovery crew’s fourth and final spacewalk in as many days to install two new space station components.

Designed for Rescue, Not Cruising

The astronauts prepared the space station for the arrival of huge solar panels in December, an American lab module in January, and the orbiting outpost’s first full-time residents, scheduled to move in in November.

Wisoff tried out the jetpack first, slowly propelling himself toward the shuttle cargo bay and pausing to perform some twists and turns. It was deliberately slow-going to simulate an emergency.

Lopez-Alegria was at Wisoff’s side the entire time. Then they changed places. Each test flight lasted just minutes and spanned only 50 feet.

There was no continuous TV coverage of the gymnastics because the shuttle’s main antenna failed earlier in the flight.

The last time Safer was tested in orbit, two years ago, it malfunctioned.

Safer is short for Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue. EVA stands for Extravehicular Activity — a spacewalk.