SPACE CENTER, Houston – A 58-foot robot arm on the international space station successfully completed its first major construction job early Sunday when it added a $164 million passageway for spacewalkers to the 230-mile-high outpost.
Station astronaut Susan Helms maneuvered the arm while space shuttle Atlantis astronauts Michael Gernhardt and James Reilly II shepherded the installation from the outside during a spacewalk that lasted six hours, an hour less than planned.
“Again, thanks to everybody up there. Nice flying Susan, and it’s really wonderful to see the air lock there,” Mission Control said.
Atlantis delivered the new 61/2-ton air lock to space station Alpha late Friday, a month later than planned as engineers grappled with problems with computers needed to operate the Canadian-built robot arm.
The arm exhibited none of those problems Sunday.
“Those Canadians really know how to build good hardware, I tell you,” Helms said.
“Good team all around, both the ones up here and the ones on the ground,” Reilly said.
Two teams of astronauts installed a brand-new entryway on the International Space Station on Sunday, then swung open the hatch with a ceremonial flourish and floated inside.
Applause erupted in Mission Control as the commanders of the linked space shuttle Atlantis and space station Alpha cut a white-paper ribbon stretching across the inner threshold of the air lock for spacewalks, named Quest.
To the relief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the space station’s robot arm worked well during its first construction job, exhibiting none of the problems that temporarily crippled it after its own installation three months ago and had delayed Atlantis’ flight.
Paul Hill, the lead flight director, was thrilled with Ms. Helms’ crane-operating skills and the flawless performance of Canada’s billion-dollar arm.
“We made history today,” Mr. Hill said. “The International Space Station reached into the Atlantis payload bay using its own arm and pulled a cargo element out and installed it and voila! Station now has a brand-new module.”
It marked the end of a major phase of assembly for the 21/2-year-old space station and the start of a new spacewalking era.
Once oxygen and nitrogen tanks are attached to the air lock this week, Americans living aboard the space station will be able to go on spacewalks any time wearing their own suits. And once Russian hoses and other gear arrive this fall, residents will be able to leave the air lock in Russian suits, too.
Until now, U.S. station occupants have had to rely on Russian spacewalking suits and a Russian exit. NASA’s suits are incompatible with Russian station systems.
Mr. Gernhardt and Mr. Reilly spent six hours outside on the first of three spacewalks planned for this mission. They removed protective covers from the air lock, then waited at a safe distance while Ms. Helms hoisted the chamber.
As soon as the air lock was bolted in place, the spacewalkers hooked up its electrical supply. If all goes well, two astronauts will use the air lock Thursday night.