What do you get an ailing space station for Christmas?
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How about a new cooling system, courtesy of Santa's helpers, a.k.a. NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio.
After weeks of attempting to fix the malfunctioning system from inside the International Space Station, the duo successfully replaced the 780-pound cooling pump today after two spacewalks, NASA officials said.
When astronaut Doug Wheelock in Mission Control congratulated Hopkins and Mastracchio with the words, “best Christmas gift ever,” Hopkins responded: “It took us a couple of weeks to get it done but we did it.”
This was the 177th spacewalk on the ISS since it started operating 15 years ago, the second for Hopkins and the eighth for Mastracchio. It was also only the second Christmas Eve spacewalk since a space shuttle mission to fix the Hubble space telescope 14 years ago.
The entire crew has Christmas day off to celebrate and recover from two weeks of brainstorming and preps for two dramatic spacewalks. But they will be merry-making sans their Christmas goodies because the Cygnus cargo vessel launch was delayed while the cooling problem was being sorted out.
Before today's spacewalk, Mission Control radioed up a timely bulletin to the astronauts assuring them that their spacewalk wouldn't interfere with Santa's mission on Christmas Eve.
“Checked with our trajectory and ballistics officer here in Mission Control. We are not working any possible conjunctions or avoidance maneuvers for a sleigh being pulled by reindeer and occupied by a jolly man with a beard and a red suit over the next 2 days. The skies are all clear,” Houston told the astronauts.
A Saturday spacewalk brought them halfway to the goal of repairing the pump, and they finished the task today.
Wheelock, who also conducted a spacewalk in 2010, said he understands the vivid interest in what’s going on the space station.
“The movie [Gravity] really kind of ratcheted up public interest in what we're doing up there. I actually enjoyed the movie," Wheelock said. "I think it's brilliantly put together with visual images of what it's like to be out there in space. I think it captured well the human emotion of being isolated and the drama."
Next up for the ISS -- a Russian spacewalk on Friday. Cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy are scheduled to install two Canadian Earth observation cameras. That spacewalk begins at 8 a.m. ET.
And on Jan. 7 the postponed Orbital-1 Cygnus Resupply Mission to the ISS is scheduled to take off at 1:55 p.m. ET.