Two astronauts of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, have just inadvertently broken their nation’s record for the longest spacewalk.
Expedition 54 commander Alexander Misurkin and flight engineer Anton Shkaplerov stepped outside the International Space Station (ISS) for a repair mission that was only supposed to last six-and-a-half hours. However, due to a complication, the two cosmonauts ended up spending eight hours and 13 minutes outside the ISS — five minutes longer than the previous Russian spacewalk record.
This is Misurkin’s fourth spacewalk and Shkaplerov’s second venture outside the space station. After their latest endeavor, the Expedition 54 commander has logged a total of 28 hours and 14 minutes of spacewalking time, while his flight engineer has amassed 14 hours and 28 minutes.
On February 2, Misurkin and Shkaplerov put on their Orlan spacesuits and headed out to repair a 17-year-old antenna on the Zvezda service module, which lies on the Russian side of the orbiting laboratory.
“The two cosmonauts opened the hatch to the Pirs docking compartment to begin the spacewalk at 10:34 a.m. EST. They re-entered the airlock and closed the hatch at 6:47 p.m. EST,” NASA informs in a news release.
“It is Groundhog Day […] and as cosmonauts have emerged from the Pirs docking compartment, ultimately they’ll see their shadow […] thus earning six more hours of spacewalk activity,” said NASA TV commentator Rob Navias as the Russian astronauts came out of the airlock.
The two cosmonauts spent the next seven hours working on a high-gain communications antenna installed at the rear of the Zvezda service module. The antenna, a long boom with a four-foot dish at the end, had been launched by Roscosmos in its original electronics box back in 2000 and was meant to improve communications between Russian flight controllers and the Russian modules of the orbital outpost.
Misurkin and Shkaplerov’s mission was to replace the old gear and install a new electronics and telemetry box for the high gain antenna, NASA officials disclosed. However, the operation of upgrading the antenna’s electronics, which had been made in the 1990s and had become obsolete, did not go as smoothly as anticipated.
According to NASASpaceFlight.com, the high-gain antenna hadn’t been used in 17 years, since it was first shipped to the ISS along with the Zvezda service module during the assembly of the station. In addition, the device was not designed to be serviced or replaced in orbit, which made the repair mission all the more difficult.
“No one thought that it would have to change this unit in space. Therefore, we are going to have to unscrew bolts in thick gloves, dismantle the block and put in a new one,” Shkaplerov pointed out in an interview with the Russian media earlier this week.
Despite the bulky EVA gloves the two cosmonauts were wearing, they managed to remove the outdated electronics box and install the new one. The old equipment, which weighs about 60 pounds and is roughly the size of a carry-on suitcase, was disposed of by Misurkin, who tossed it into space.
NASA officials revealed the old electronics box was jettisoned behind the ISS, in a direction where it would not intersect with the space station. The 60-pound box tumbled harmlessly away, 250 miles above the North Atlantic, and is expected to burn up upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
The same happened with the two towels the cosmonauts used to wipe their spacesuits at the end of the spacewalk, and which were also hurled into space. Phys.org notes Russian astronauts routinely dispose of used towels and old equipment by tossing them into space. According to Navias, this practice minimizes the chances for any “foreign debris” to get aboard the ISS.
Nevertheless, the real trouble began about seven hours into the spacewalk, when the cosmonauts tried to deploy the antenna after the installation of the new electronics box. In preparation for the repair mission, the antenna had been folded up prior to yesterday’s spacewalk. The antenna got stuck in the folded position (its launch configuration), failing to deploy when the ground controllers sent the command to revert it to its operational configuration.
It took Misurkin and Shkaplerov several minutes to fix the jammed equipment and eventually deploy the antenna, but things didn’t end here — the antenna actually deployed in the wrong position, 180 degrees farther than it was supposed to.
Despite this unforeseen complication, the antenna is reportedly “operating and in good shape,” Navias specified during the live webcast. The Russian space agency has begun an investigation into the matter in order to establish if further action is necessary.
Yet this delay had an unexpected outcome: it extended yesterday’s spacewalk, causing it to surpass the previous Russian record — of eight hours and seven minutes — set in 2013 by Expedition 38 cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazanski.
Misurkin and Shkaplerov were surprised to learn they had, in fact, performed the longest spacewalk in Russian history, Phys.org reports.
“Are you kidding us?” one of them asked upon hearing they had just broken the Russian spacewalk record.
This latest record represents the fifth longest spacewalk in history, the ultimate record still belonging to NASA astronauts Jim Voss and Susan Helms, who performed an eight-hour and 56-minute spacewalk on March 11, 2001.
At the same time, yesterday’s spacewalk is the second to take place since the beginning of the year, and the 207th in the history of the ISS. The third spacewalk of 2018 is scheduled for February 15, when NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai are set to bring a faulty robotic hand, or latching end effector (LEE), back inside the ISS. The LEE is currently installed on the space station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm, and will eventually be sent back home aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule, Spacefligh Now reports.