Stapler Picked for Shuttle Repair Mission

Spacewalkers will use a staple technique in an attempt to repair damage to the space shuttle Atlantis, on the third spacewalk of the mission, Friday.

The shuttle was damaged last week during takeoff when a corner of the thermal blanket on the port orbital maneuvering system peeled back as Atlantis rocketed into space, leaving a triangular 4-inch by 6-inch gap.

Astronauts at the Johnson Space Center practiced to devise a strategy for the fix by sewing thermal blanket samples with a big needle and stainless steel thread. They also tried a hook and eye method, and big staples to secure the blanket.

When all the results were presented to the experts, they decided to go with stapling to repair Atlantis.

'Just the Right Thing To Do'

NASA decided earlier this week to extend the STS 117 mission by two days to give spacewalkers time to repair the damage.

STS 117 commander Rick Sturckow says he is happy for the extra mission time to fix the problem. "This is just the right thing to do, the conservative thing to do, and we appreciate everyone taking a look at it and fixing it," he said.

The damage isn't considered life threatening, but Mission Management Team chairman John Shannon said he prefers not to let the shuttle fly home without fixing it because he is afraid the heat of re-entry could cause even worse damage that could take weeks to repair on the ground — but just a couple of hours for a spacewalking astronaut crew to fix in orbit.

Managers want the crew to tuck the blanket back down to avoid damage to the shuttle as Atlantis flies through the searing heat of the atmosphere prior to landing.

NASA only has three shuttles left in its fleet. It needs to keep all of them flying on schedule with little turnaround time to finish 12 construction missions to the space station by 2010 when the shuttles — the only vehicles capable of launching and assembling the major components — are forced into retirement.

Before that happens, NASA would like to fly two resupply missions to the station and make one last servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Since the loss of shuttle Columbia in 2003, NASA has been meticulous about examining the shuttles' heat shields for damage. Columbia was hit by a piece of foam insulation that fell off its fuel tank during launch. The strike punched a hole in the shuttle's left wing, allowing superheated gases to penetrate the shuttle as it flew back through the atmosphere to land on Earth.

The shuttle broke apart over Texas, killing the seven astronauts aboard.