| Sunita Williams moves to the mid-deck of Discovery. (AP)
Houston, Dec. 12 (Reuters): Astronauts aboard space shuttle Discovery planned a space walk tomorrow to install the sixth of 11 segments in the International Space Station’s girder-like backbone.
The outing is the first of the three scheduled for the 12-day space-station construction mission. The main objective of this excursion is the installation of the P5 integrated truss onto the station.
On this trip, the astronauts will also rewire the station to allow the addition of more solar power arrays.
Discovery docked with the space station yesterday afternoon, 220 miles above Earth, after being launched on Saturday night from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Now the real work starts,” John Shannon, deputy shuttle program manager, said late yesterday.
Compared to their space station counterparts, Indian American Sunita Williams and the six other astronauts on Discovery had a hard time moving around in weightlessness. Some of them had to be held down for a group photo so they did not drift away.
As the shuttle approached the space station, Sunita said: “Tally-ho on the new home. It’s beautiful”.
Sunita, who is the second Indian American woman on a space mission after Kalpana Chawla, is scheduled to spend six months on the station.
The seven astronauts on Discovery, five making their first space flight, joined station commander Michael Lopez-Alegria and crew Mikhail Tyurin of Russia and Thomas Reiter of Germany.
After handshakes and hugs, the crews began preparing for one of the most complex of 14 more missions planned to finish the station in 2010.
The flight was proceeding “flawlessly”, lead flight director Tony Ceccacci said. But “we have seven challenging docked days ahead of us”.
The $11-million, two-tonne truss will add 11 feet to the space station’s metal backbone, taking it to 180 feet in length. It will be more than 250 feet long when finished.
Space-suited astronauts Robert Curbeam and Christer Fuglesang are to leave the station’s air lock to begin installation of the truss.
Curbeam, a veteran US astronaut with three previous space walks, and Fuglesang, a European Space Agency rookie, would finish six hours and 10 minutes later.
The truss segment spent the night attached to the space station’s robot arm after being lifted out of the shuttle cargo bay late yesterday.
Sunita and fellow astronaut Joanie Higginbotham are to help Curbeam and Fuglesang by operating the station’s robot arm from inside the station. They plan to use the arm to manoeuvre the aluminum segment into place on the station’s port or left side.
Curbeam and Fuglesang then are to tighten bolts, securing the new piece in place. Then they plan to attach wiring.
Two more space walks are planned to rewire the station so it can use a new set of solar power arrays delivered in September and two more sets awaiting launch.
The increased power is needed for laboratory modules built by Europe and Japan expected to be attached to the station beginning next year.
Inspections of the shuttle’s heat shield have shown very little damage during the launch. Shannon said teams would continue studying the photographs and data but the Discovery looked healthy.
Intensive checks of tiles that protect the shuttle from the heat generated during the return to Earth are among safety measures imposed after the shuttle Columbia broke up before landing in 2003.