CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.: Spacewalking astronauts carried out an impromptu patch job outside the International Space Station on Thursday, after losing a vital piece of cloth shielding when it floated away.
As the drama unfolded, Peggy Whitson set a record for the most spacewalks by a woman — eight — and the most accumulated time spent spacewalking — just over 53 hours.
The bundled-up shield somehow came loose as Whitson and Shane Kimbrough worked to install micrometeorite protection over a spot left exposed when a new docking port was relocated. Mission Control monitored the shield as it drifted away and, a couple hours later, determined it posed no risk to the 250-mile-high outpost. It was visible in the distance as a white dot.
As Whitson and Kimbrough installed the three remaining shields, Mission Control quickly came up with a TV MacGyver-like plan for a patch. The astronauts filled the gap using the cover that they had just removed from the relocated docking port.
The cover is made of the same material as the shielding, according to Mission Control, and just as capable of protecting against potential strikes by bits of space debris and providing thermal control. The entire space station is protected, in some fashion, against possible debris strikes.
Midway through the seven-hour excursion, Whitson surpassed the record for women of 50 hours and 40 minutes of total accumulated spacewalking time.
Whitson is now No. 5 on the all-time spacewalking list. The 57-year-old Whitson has been in orbit since November.