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<i>Discovery</i> Astronauts Repair Space Shuttle

Spacewalking shuttle astronauts have successfully removed two pieces of gap filler sticking up from between the protective tiles that line the underside of the shuttle Discovery.

It took about a half-hour for the spacewalking shuttle astronauts to get into position to remove the two pieces of protruding gap filler from between the ship's thermal protection tiles, but only minutes for American Steve Robinson to gently yank away the fabric with his gloved hand.

Mr. Robinson performed the tricky maneuver while attached to the robotic arm of the International Space Station. Before he reached for the ceramic treated fabric an astronaut inside the shuttle, Andy Thomas, cautioned him to be careful not to strike the fragile tiles that line the orbiter.

"I think it goes without saying that we don't want to see contact with tile or the belly of the orbiter that you have a lot of things hanging on you even though we cleaned you up," he said.

The gap fillers between the fragile tiles are designed to protect them from knocking into each other and possibly getting damaged during the stress of takeoff.

NASA engineers were worried that the two pieces of protruding fabric could alter the aerodynamic flow of hot gasses along the bottom of the shuttle during its reentry into the Earth's atmosphere, causing a situation similar to the 2003 Columbia disaster, in which the shuttle burned up upon re-entry, killing all seven astronauts.

Mr. Robinson pulled the first gap filler out using a minimum amount of force. He had been prepared to use forceps and even a saw if necessary. A short time later, Mr. Robinson yanked out the second piece of fabric with a slight tug.

"OK. That came out very easily, probably even [with] less force. It looks like this big patient is cured," he said.

Astronaut Robinson, who was assisted by his Japanese colleague Soichi Noguchi, also took a little time to enjoy the view from space.

"It is truly spectacular. No other words," he said.

The unscheduled repair marked the first time an astronaut has ever ventured to the underside of an orbiting spacecraft. In addition to the repair mission, the astronauts also used their spacewalk to carry out maintenance and repairs on the orbiting space station.