On Thursday, astronauts 249 miles above Earth lost a crucial shield from the International Space Station during a spacewalk. The shield, which should have been tethered but for as-yet-unknown reasons wasn’t, is meant to protect the space station from micrometeoroid debris that could cause catastrophic damage to the ISS or injure astronauts. Instead, it just floated away. So, needless to say, the mood at Mission Control was tense.
NASA staff back on Earth at Johnson Space Center jumped into action, devising a plan for the astronauts to use the materials they had on-hand to solve this unexpected problem.
While this morning’s extravehicular activity was still in progress, Ground Control figured out what the astronauts needed to do. The crew at Johnson Space Center instructed Whitson and Kimbrough to use the cover they’d removed from the pressurized mating adaptor they’d been working on. The astronauts used this existing cover to protect the hole in Node 3 where the lost shield was supposed to be. With plenty of straps and a little bit of reconfiguring, Whitson and Kimbrough successfully retrofitted the PMA cover to replace the lost cloth shielding. And everyone on the ground breathed a collective sigh of relief.
It was a moment reminiscent of the Apollo 13 mission, in which NASA ground control simulated, with the supplies available to the crew, how the astronauts could solve their life-threatening problem. Thursday’s situation wasn’t quite as high-stakes, but the solution was arguably just as inventive and resourceful.
Starting at 6:29 a.m. Eastern, Flight Engineer Peggy Whitson and Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough executed the EVA to perform routine maintenance and prepare the ISS for docking with commercial spacecraft. About halfway through the procedure, though, a piece of cloth shielding floated away from the astronauts. The cloth in question is a micrometeoroid debris shield that the astronauts were going to use to cover a hole left by a relocated docking port. This unexpected complication forced them to divert from their routine procedures and figure out how to cover the hole.
Once the astronauts covered the hole in Node 3, they resumed their scheduled procedures. The reconfigured docking port will serve as a site for commercial spacecraft from SpaceX and Boeing to resupply the ISS.
NASA tells the Associated Press it will monitor the shield to make sure it doesn’t damage the space station when it comes back around in orbit.