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Spacewalker fixes Shuttle's belly

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Astronaut Stephen Robinson has managed to complete the fix to the underside of the Space Shuttle Discovery by pulling out two protruding "gap-fillers" by hand. NASA had been concerned that the disruption to the Shuttle's smooth underside would increase the amount of turbulence, and so heating in the area during a re-entry attempt, putting the Shuttle and crew at risk.

Robinson and crewmate Soichi Noguchi, who accompanied him on the space walk, are the first people to have seen the underside of a space shuttle while the craft is in orbit. Robinson was manoeuvred into position on the end of the International Space Station's 58ft robotic arm. In preparation for the spacewalk, he said he would be particularly careful not to bump his head while carrying out the fix.

NASA had provided forceps and astronauts had rigged up a makeshift hacksaw for Robinson to use if the gap-fillers proved difficult to remove. In the event, the fillers, which act almost like grouting in between the Shuttle's heat shield tiles, came out relatively easily. NASA says they were probably shaken loose during the launch.

The Shuttle launch was also marred by falling foam which NASA acknowledges could have hit the craft as it powered into space. However, NASA officials say they don't think the shuttle is at risk of suffering the same fate as Columbia, which broke up on re-entry in 2003.

During its launch a large chunk of foam fell from Columbia hitting, and damaging the craft on its wing. As the space-plane went through the atmosphere, superheated gases got inside, tearing the ship apart.

Shuttle Commander Eileen Collins said she is disappointed the foam problem is still not resolved.

"We were actually quite surprised to hear we had some large pieces of debris fall off the external tank, it wasn't what we had expected," she said. "Frankly we were disappointed to hear that had happened. We thought we had this problem fixed."

Collins now says she has few worries about re-entry, slated for Monday 8 August. ®

Related stories

Space-walk no. 3 to fix Shuttle
Discovery docks with ISS
Shuttle grounded again - indefinitely
NASA investigates falling debris
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