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Atlantis shuttle mission lengthened for repair job

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Jean-Louis Santini*

NASA has added two days to the shuttle Atlantis's mission so that astronauts can repair a damaged thermal blanket on the vessel's exterior, the US space agency said late Monday.
The decision to add a fourth space walk to the Atlantis crew's schedule to fix the thermal blanket will mean a mission of 13 days in space rather than the originally planned 11 days, said John Shannon, head of the mission management team at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The announcement came after two Atlantis astronauts ventured out for the first space walk of the mission Monday.
Mission specialists John "Danny" Olivas and Jim Reilly emerged from an airlock on the station at 4:02 pm (2002 GMT) for a six hour, 15 minute foray into space to begin installing power-generating equipment on the International Space Station, hundreds of miles above the Earth.

Their job was to make power, data and cooling connections on a new 16-tonne truss segment containing solar panels. The enormous truss was attached in a delicate maneuver before the space walk with the help of the station's giant robotic arm.
The solar arrays, spanning 73 meters (240 feet), will dramatically increase ISS power generation to a potential 14 kilowatts. The power capacity will help serve new science modules from the European and Japanese space agencies planned for the future.
The solar arrays, folded up like an accordion, are to be unfurled on Tuesday.
The space walk was slightly delayed due to problems with "gyros" that control the orientation of the station, which flight controllers managed to repair, NASA said.
The shuttle — on its first mission of the year — docked with the ISS Sunday, after performing a dramatic backward somersault in space.
Two days were added to the trip so that the crew can repair a section of the ship's thermal insulation which peeled back on launch Friday, opening up a gap of several inches.
NASA has played down concerns over the damage to Atlantis. Shannon earlier said the damage is in a spot not exposed to the highest heat as the shuttle breaks through Earth's atmosphere.
Lift-off damage is a concern after the February 2003 shuttle disaster. The Columbia craft disintegrated as it returned to Earth due to breaks in its heat shield caused by foam insulation peeling off its fuel tank and striking a wing during the launch.
All seven astronauts aboard perished and the shuttle program was put on hold for nearly two and a half years while the space agency sought to overcome the problem, modifying the external fuel tank and setting procedures to check the heat shield while in orbit.
The Atlantis mission is the first this year. An earlier launch planned for March was scrubbed after the spacecraft was damaged by hail in a freak storm in February.
The ISS is a key stepping stone for preparing manned missions to Mars. NASA plans at least 13 more shuttle missions to finish the 100-billion-dollar station by 2010, when the agency retires its three-shuttle fleet.

* AFP

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