Space Shuttle Endeavour: Astronauts Say Spacewalks Are Not as Easy as They Look

PHOTO: Mission Specialists Robert L. Curbeam, Jr. (left) and Christer Fuglesang participate in the first of the missions three planned sessions of extravehicular activity as construction resumes on the International Space Station in Dec. 2006.PlayCourtesy of NASA
WATCH May 18, 2009: Hubble Telescope Repair

Spacewalks look deceptively easy. Watching space shuttle astronauts Drew Feustel and Mike Fincke float out of the airlock on the International Space Station, and seeming to hover effortlessly over the Earth, will make you jealous. Think of the views -- they see Earth and the stars in a way very few have. Spacewalkers are a select club -- only 201 men and women have ventured out in the inky blackness of space since the first flights 50 years ago.

The next spacewalk for Feustel and Finke will be complicated -- working in weightlessness, wearing bulky spacesuits, and doing critical maintenance to the International Space Station is difficult. Robots can't do this kind of work yet; it still requires a thinking, breathing, dexterous human being.

Fincke was working Sunday on the rotating joint for one of the solar arrays when a bolt and a washer slipped away from him. He got kudos from Mission Control for catching four others. Imagine what he had to do – catch a tiny bolt wearing spacesuit gloves. Try this at home wearing oven mitts and you will get the idea.

Those space suits may look like big fluffy marshmallows but they are really small spaceships steered by the astronaut.

Allison Bolinger trains the astronauts for spacewalks "We do train the crew not to fight the suit," said Allison Bolinger, who trains the astronauts for spacewalks. "You don't need a death grip in space -- Drew and Mike both know how to operate in a suit and use it to their advantage."

Feustel, a veteran of three spacewalks on the last space shuttle mission to repair the Hubble space telescope in 2009, and now two on this mission, says a spacewalk takes enormous endurance. Sunday's spacewalk ran eight hours and seven minutes, setting a record as the sixth-longest spacewalk in history.

"I remember my hands basically being locked up in the mornings when I woke up, being completely frozen," he said in a preflight interview, describing how hard it was to work in the stiff, airtight gloves of his suit in 2009. "It would take me some time to get moving. It was kind of painful -- it is something I am not looking forward to but I anticipate it is going to be similar to what I experienced on the Hubble mission. It is a lot of work"

Astronaut Piers Sellers told ABC News before his last mission in 2007 it was tough getting used to moving around in space. "It's a little bit like standing in a little rowboat with an ocean swell, trying to paint the side of a ship that you're up against," he said. "You have to compensate for the waves and the sways. But you can do that. People do it every day with rowboats."

Astronauts who train as spacewalkers have to be in great shape -- they work out two hours a day to get ready for their on-orbit marathons. They also spend countless hours in the Neutral Bouyancy Lab -- the NBL for short -- a large pool at NASA where they can simulate their spacewalks underwater.

Feustel says he wouldn't trade places with anyone. "I would do it a hundred times if I could, it is amazing. I could give up some of the training work in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab -- that's kind of grueling -- but the payoff is so amazing in space."

Wednesday he ventures out on his third and final spacewalk of this mission. This series of spacewalks is the last by space shuttle astronauts; the fleet will be retired this summer after one more flight by the shuttle Atlantis flight in July.

Endeavour is scheduled to land on June 1, ending its 25th and final flight with a predawn landing at the Kennedy Space Center.

It is a bittersweet mission for Feustel. "I hope what we do later is more grand and offers us more possibilities," he said, "but the space shuttle was like the first great space pickup truck, and it always will be. It is just an amazing vehicle"