The Little Matter of Getting Home Safely

Jul 10, 2008 12:45pm

Another day, another spacewalk…except that the stakes are a bit high.  The two Russian cosmonauts on board the Space Station, Commander Sergei Volkov and Flight Engineer Oleg Kononenko, went outside to try something they’d ordinarily avoid: remove an explosive bolt that connects two sections of the Soyuz TMA-12 spacecraft docked to the station.  The Soyuz is their ride home, and the last two landings were hairy. Russian engineers — with NASA uneasily looking over their shoulders — suspect the Soyuz descent module, in which the astronauts ride for landing, failed to separate properly from the propulsion module behind it, which contains their retro rockets.  They’re held together by five of the explosive bolts that the spacewalkers are checking out today. The two spacewalkers had to cut through some thermal insulation with a knife, remove one of the bolts, and put it in a protective container for examination on the ground.  It’s a little like working with fireworks and a kitchen knife…while wearing space suit gloves.  Back in April, the previous Soyuz landing was rougher and steeper than usual — a so-called "ballistic" re-entry — and the ship landed about 250 miles off course.  One of the three passengers was American astronaut Peggy Whitson.  Was it because of defective bolts, and are there more on the current Soyuz?  That’s the question. The Soyuz currently at the station is scheduled for landing in October, carrying Konokenko, Volkov, and Richard Garriott, the American video-game magnate (the "Ultima" games are his; thanks to Matt for the info) who’s paying for his seat.  A NASA explanation of the issue is HERE.  There’s one American on the station at the moment, Greg Chamitoff, who’s scheduled to come home on a shuttle in November.  He spent the afternoon inside the suspect Soyuz — the safest place to be if something went wrong while his comrades were outside. If there’s an ongoing problem with Soyuz spacecraft, let’s just say NASA will be a tad uncomfortable.  After the shuttles are retired in 2010 (see the list of remaining flights HERE), the Soyuz is the main way to get to and from the station until the Orion spacecraft start flying around 2014. =========== Update: The space walk was completed without incident.  The suspect bolt, in its protective case, will be brought home by the cosmonauts in December — inside the Soyuz.

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