Discovery's crew will remove two short pieces of filler material on the shuttle's belly.
SPACE CENTER, Houston -- Employing the kind of NASA ingenuity seen during Apollo 13, an astronaut prepped for an emergency repair job on Discovery's exterior Wednesday with forceps, scissors and a hacksaw fashioned out of a blade and a little duct tape.
Stephen Robinson's mission was to remove two short pieces of filler material that were sticking out of the shuttle's belly. NASA feared the material could lead to a repeat of the 2003 Columbia tragedy during Discovery's re-entry next week.
Astronauts have never ventured beneath an orbiting shuttle before, and have never attempted repairs to the fragile thermal skin in space.
"No doubt about it, this is going to be a very delicate task, but as I say, a simple one," Robinson said Tuesday.
The plan was carefully worked out on the ground over the past four days. It called for maneuvering Robinson underneath Discovery -- a no man's land, up to now -- on the end of the linked international space station's 58-foot robot arm.
The hope was that Robinson could simply pull the stiff fabric out with his gloved hands. If a gentle tug did not work, he was to pull a little harder with forceps. And if that didn't work, he was supposed to use a hacksaw put together in orbit with a deliberately bent blade, plastic ties, Velcro and the handyman's favorite all-purpose fix-it: duct tape.
The scissors were considered a last resort because they are clumsier to use and would not provide as close a cut.
Paul Hill, the lead flight director for the mission, said Tuesday that one way or another, the two dangling strips of ceramic-fiber material need to come off before Discovery returns to Earth on Monday. Engineers fear the spacecraft could overheat to dangerous levels if it descended through the atmosphere with the material protruding.