CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Astronaut Scott Parazynski stepped out of an air lock early Saturday into one of the most daring spacewalks ever made, repairing a damaged solar panel array during five hours of nail-biting work using only a pair of needle nose pliers, wire cutters and a “hockey stick.”

More than once, NASA officials around the country held their breath as the 46-year-old emergency room physician-turned-spacewalker dangled at the end of a boom under a blanket of solar panels crackling with electricity.

It was a moment of rare audacity 215 miles above the Earth that recalled NASA’s golden era of free-wheeling improvisation and feats of daring.

Nobody had trained for the repair job and much of the ad hoc plan was only devised days before the walk. Necessity became the mother of invention.

The mission was deemed critical by NASA managers after a guide wire got tangled last Tuesday while the array was being unfurled. The snag tore a 2-and-a-half-foot hole on one solar panel and slightly ripped another. The damage to the station’s power system threatened future space shuttle missions to the orbiting platform.

To save the program, teams of astronauts and engineers on the ground puzzled over computer simulations and replicas of torn solar panels.

Before going to bed Friday, Parazynski asked for another session with spacewalking experts at Mission Control, saying he still had questions. Controllers told him they could not come up with a wire on the space station for him to practice a fraying technique that he might need.

Parazynski told them not to worry, that he was pretty good at fraying wires “having done a lot of home wiring projects myself.”

“Just use your magic on this one the same way,” Mission Control replied.

And that’s what he did.

From the first minutes of Saturday’s spacewalk, Parazynski had to wing it.

To haul himself onto the boom, he had to use Col. Douglas Wheelock, as a stepping stool, pushing off his crewmate’s backpack for a boost.

Wheelock waved goodbye as Parazynski was lifted up like a worm on a fishing pole and carried away toward the damaged solar array by a 58-foot robotic arm being operated from inside the station by fellow astronauts Daniel Tani and Stephanie Wilson.

During the 45 minute ride from the air lock to the array, Parazynski’s in-station handler, Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, read to the dangling spacewalker from NASA’s mission instructions – a kind of guide book of horrors.

“We have a bunch of warnings related to shock hazard,” said Nespoli. “Crew will only contact energized surfaces with approved tools that have been insulated with Kapton tape to prevent molten metal and shock. Some sparking may be expected. Avoid contact with solar panels except with insulated tools.”

Only the day before NASA officials publicly downplayed the danger of Parazynski being shocked or electrocuted. But the risks were real. Like his tools, the exposed metal on Parazynski’s spacesuit was also covered in the non-conductive tape as an added protection.

Although damaged, the array still produced 97 percent of its power output capacity. And as long as the array it was deployed – even partially – there was no off switch.

The first sign of trouble came at the end of the trip from the air lock. Tani was trying to inch Parazynski into place to work on the array, when controllers realized that even with the boom attached to the robot arm, Parazynski – one of NASA’s tallest astronauts at 6 foot 2 – was still several inches shy of where he needed to be.

It was dangerous work

NASA was ultimately counting on the boom and Parazynski’s long reach to untangle the snag.

So again, Parazynski improvised. Using the hockey stick – an L-shaped piece of Teflon covered in tape – he pulled the soft-blanket like array toward him to darn the tear together using wire harnesses NASA called cufflinks.

From the camera mounted on Parazynski’s helmet, it was easy to see the astronaut’s thickly gloved hands as they threaded the ends of wire harnesses through reinforced holes on the panels. Once in place the cufflinks would hold the array together so it could be fully deployed across its main suspension wire like a giant shower curtain being pulled out. It was dangerous work.


At times when the harness ends wouldn’t fit into the holes. Parazynski’s gloved hands would try to force the ends through, pushing them within inches of the bright orange panels that he could not touch without risking a shock. It was all just a slip away from disaster. Moreover, as Parazynski pushed the harnesses through the eyelets, the panels swayed.

Down below at the base of array, Wheelock, acting as spotter, reported the movement that looked like sheets blowing in a soft breeze. From Wheelock’s helmet camera looking up, the swaying panels were clearly visible, undulating back and forth, coming sometimes within feet of Parazynski.

“You really want to be ready with that hockey stick,” the station’s commander Peggy Whitson said at one point, trying to keep a calm voice. “It is your best friend.”

The snag was worse than expected. NASA had originally hoped it would take 30 minutes to shake the array loose. But that wish was dashed when Parazynski’s described a “hairball” of frayed wires, ripped grommets and broken hinges.

“Oh, that’s just ugly,” said Discovery commander Pamela Melroy, catching a glimpse of the snarl through Parazynski’s helmet camera.

“Well, Dr. Parazynski,” added station Commander Whitson. “It looks like you have some surgery to perform.”

That was when Dina Contella, NASA’s chief spacewalk officer in Houston, said she stopped breathing. “We didn’t have any video at the time, only audio” she told a news conference after the repair.

If the wire recoiled too fast the array could fall on Parazynski. Or the wire could slice open his spacesuit or Wheelock’s glove. Parazynski tried to work a break down below the array to control the speed of the retracting wire.

On a count of “one, two, three,” Parazynski snipped the wire. It retracted slowly, back into its box near Wheelock.

Mission control erupted into cheers.

Parazynski then installed some remaining cufflinks, fighting off the panels with his hockey stick before he backed off to watch from his perch as the array unfurled to its full 110 foot glory.

“Bring me home,” Parazynski commanded the robot arm operators, who ferried him back to the space station, ending the seven-hour, 19-minute adventure.


The achievement clears the way for future shuttle missions to the space station and sets the stage for the addition next month of a European laboratory. It also vindicates NASA engineers and mission managers who designed the daring repair procedure and enshrines Parazynski as an agency hero with more than 47 hours of walking in space under his belt.

Once Parazynski was safely aboard the space station, Mission Control relayed the thanks of NASA’s chiefs.

“It was an honor,” Parazynski replied.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.