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Alpha crew performs first spacewalk

Alpha sports its new Canadarm2 in this photo taken by a crew member on the departing space shuttle Endeavour on April 29, 2001
Alpha sports its new Canadarm2 in this photo taken by a crew member on the departing space shuttle Endeavour on April 29, 2001  


By Richard Stenger
CNN

(CNN) -- Residents of the international space station made their first foray into the vacuum of space on Friday, preparing the orbiting outpost for the arrival of a Russian docking module.

Cosmonaut Yury Usachev and astronaut Jim Voss donned spacesuits and floated through a depressurized compartment in the Russian service module during the internal spacewalk, the first of any kind for an Alpha crew.

The pair inspected gaskets, handed each other tools and scooted around the cramped quarters. They tugged hard on a lower port hatch that faces Earth, opening it just after the station flew over the dark side of the planet, robbing them of a view of home.

"Got dark just as we opened up the hatch," Voss told his crewmate Susan Helms, who remained in the pressurized Zarya module during the walk.

  INTERACTIVE
 

Usachev and Voss moved a docking cone from storage and installed it in the lower port hatch during the 19-minute procedure, which lasted half as long as expected.

The move was required before the Zvezda module can mate with a Russian docking module, which is expected to arrive in August or September. Later on, the docking equipment will help connect a Russian science lab to the modular complex, which resembles a string of giant tin cans linked together liked sausages.

Ground controllers considered sending the pair, both experienced spacewalkers, outside the station to perform emergency repairs on a mobile crane on the exterior of the station. Since its delivery in April, the $600 million robotic arm has been plagued with joint problems during testing.

Station managers have since beamed up experimental software patches. Although they have yet to declare the ailing arm cured, they considered the 57-foot (17-meter) appendage healthy enough to skip the exterior house call.

The Canada-built multi-jointed limb, designed to move across the station like an inchworm, attaching to numerous data and power ports, is needed to install a $165 million airlock, which NASA hopes to deliver onboard the shuttle Atlantis in early July, despite the robot arm woes.

Composed of two cylindrical chambers, the airlock will serve as the primary exit and entrance port for Alpha, which currently houses its second three-person crew.

The Alpha crew: Jim Voss, left, Yury Usachev, center, and Susan Helms
The Alpha crew: Jim Voss, left, Yury Usachev, center, and Susan Helms  

Visiting shuttle crews have performed many spacewalks outside Alpha since the first segments arrived in late 1998, but no station crews have performed one until now. It was considered a spacewalk since Usachev and Voss were exposed to the vacuum of space.

While Alpha residents have yet to venture outside, such trips could become commonplace during future construction on the complex, which the United States, Russia and other partners hope to complete by 2006.

But the robot arm must be in working order first. Only Canada2, which is longer and more agile than space shuttle cranes, can perform many crucial installation jobs needed to complete Alpha.








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