Sunita Williams poised to set space walking record


Washington, Jan 30 (IANS) Indian American astronaut Sunita Williams, the first person of Indian descent to take a stroll in space, is all set to become the world’s most experienced woman space walker.

Starting with an outing at 8:30 a.m. IST Thursday, flight engineer Williams and International Space Station (ISS) commander Michael Lopez-Alegria will take three spacewalks in nine days to step up station assembly before NASA shuttles stop flying in 2010.

Their main job is to attach the US-made Destiny laboratory to a new cooling system installed at the half-built space station during the last shuttle flight, a round trip of 8.5 million km, in December.

The next two space walks are scheduled for Feb 4 and 8. If time allows, they will photograph a solar panel that is due to be folded up during the next shuttle mission in March.

While Williams will top the women’s list with four spacewalks on completion of the work, Lopez-Alegria too will become US space agency’s lead spacewalker with 10 after a fourth spacewalk Feb 22 with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin.

Of the 30 previous US station construction spacewalks, only six were made without a shuttle crew and those were spread over four years.

This time “we’re going to be knocking out three, one right after another”, said NASA’s lead spacewalk officer Glenda Laws. That presents a lot of new challenges with getting the crew ready the biggest challenge.

Lopez-Alegria, who arrived at the station four months ago, completed his last spacewalk training in July. Williams is a bit fresher, having arrived less than two months ago.

The two have spent weeks reviewing videos, using virtual reality simulators and studying with ground control to hone their skills and add new tasks since their training.

The first two outings, each likely to take six hours, will be devoted to unhooking ammonia cooling lines on the Destiny laboratory and connecting the module to the new system.

The astronauts then will watch ground controllers retract panels no longer needed to dissipate heat. NASA hopes things go more smoothly than the retraction of the old solar array panel, which jammed repeatedly during the last shuttle flight.

Construction began in 1998 on the $100 billion space station, a venture by the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia and 11 participating nations of the European Space Agency, with Brazil and Italy as payload participants.

Scientists from the other countries hope experiments will lead to new drugs for cancer, diabetes, emphysema and immune system disorders. They also hope to develop new metal alloys and learn more about phenomena on Earth, such as hurricanes.

Meanwhile, Lopez-Alegria, assisted by Suni Williams, both US Naval Academy graduates, swore in 16 sailors aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower during a special live link-up from the space station Monday. They conducted the long-distance re-enlistment ceremony as the station orbited 350 km above the Earth.

Back in Washington, former astronaut and senator John Glenn, NASA administrator Michael Griffin and other senior NASA officials Monday participated in a wreath laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery as part of NASA’s Day of Remembrance.

The wreathes were laid in the memory astronauts who lost their lives in Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia disasters. India born Kalpana was one of the seven crew killed in the last accident in 2003.

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