Swanson starts spacewalk

Atlantis astronaut and former Sailor helps fold up solar wing

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NASA/Courtesy

Astronaut Steve Swanson, a mission specialist, uses a computer on the middeck of Space Shuttle Atlantis on Saturday. Swanson is a Steamboat Springs High School graduate.

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— Two astronauts floated outside the international space station Wednesday after completing one of two tasks on their to-do list: helping to fold up a solar wing.

Space shuttle Atlantis astronauts Patrick Forrester and Steve Swanson spent the first two hours of their scheduled 6 1/2-hour spacewalk helping to put a 115-foot solar wing away in its storage box.

The spacewalk began at 12:28 p.m. as the astronauts were 206 miles above eastern Europe.

A few hours before the walk started, astronauts began retracting the solar wing's 31 1/2 sections by computer command.

Using specially designed tools, including one that looks like a hockey stick, the spacewalkers loosened and nudged panels on the solar wing that hadn't properly folded earlier in the day. Shuttle astronauts then resumed retracting the array, ending the day with 13 sections folded up.

"We're going to call it quits on this part of your job for today. Excellent job," astronaut James Reilly told the spacewalkers.

NASA hopes to finish folding up the solar wing Thursday. The wing's retraction appeared to go fairly smoothly Wednesday.

Before the spacewalk, when it looked as if the solar panels were starting to bunch up or fold backward, Mission Control periodically wiggled the array by remote control to loosen guide wires and grommets, the metal eyelets through which guide wires run.

The folding of a similar 115-foot solar array during a December shuttle mission was more problematic, because guide wires got stuck on grommets.

The solar wing needs to be folded up so a new set of solar panels, delivered to the space station this week, can follow the sun to generate electrical power for the orbiting outpost. The new array was unfolded Tuesday after being attached to the space station the day before.

With their work on the solar array done for the day, Forrester and Swanson were to spend the rest of their spacewalk - the second one of Atlantis' mission to the space station - helping to activate a Ferris-wheel-like rotating joint that allows the new solar array to track the sun.

Back on the ground, NASA engineers were still figuring out how best to repair a loose thermal protection blanket on the shuttle that peeled back during launch last week.

NASA managers were focusing on sewing the blanket with stainless steel wire and an instrument that resembles a small needle. The 4-by-6-inch damaged section sits over an engine pod.

NASA managers decided Wednesday the repair would be done on the third spacewalk on Friday by Reilly and Danny Olivas. The 11-day mission was extended by two days so the repair could be made.

Engineers don't think the damaged section of the thermal blanket, which protects part of the shuttle from the blazing heat of re-entry, would endanger the spacecraft during landing. But it could cause enough damage to require schedule-busting repairs.

Since shuttle damage resulted in the 2003 Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts, NASA has greatly focused on any problems that could jeopardize a shuttle's re-entry.

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