CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - Continued delays in completing their daily chores prompted flight controllers to schedule an early bedtime for two troublemaking members of the space shuttle Discovery crew, who will not be allowed to stay up past 9 p.m. Friday.
Flight controllers struggled vainly to open a "stuck valve" in a cooling loop at the International Space Station as the 13 orbiting astronauts enjoyed a little down time.
Two astronauts - Rick Mastracchio and Clayton Anderson - were observed earlier "struggling with stiff bolts" on each of three spacewalks as they attempted to release the valve, which had failed to open Tuesday after spacewalking astronauts hooked up a new ammonia tank.
Ground controllers then tried twice, without success, to command the valve to open remotely, so Mission Control was forced to give the astronauts a few hours off.
Engineers said they were perplexed because the valve had worked fine earlier in the mission.
"It may have seemed like we were working hard," Mastracchio later told reporters, snickering. "But actually, when we were struggling with those bolts, we were doing a lot more acting than we were actually working.
"Today, Clay and I feel fine! And if necessary, we'll go out for even more spacewalks," he said, winking.
Nevertheless, flight director Ron Spencer finally got wise, and the crew was instructed to disconnect and reconnect all 36 of the connectors that provide power and data to the controllers; in the process, they found a small, mysterious, broken pin.
"Now, how the heck did that get in there?" asked Anderson.
Discovery's four female crew members removed the pin, then secured the hands of Anderson and Mastracchio with duct tape to ensure they could no longer interfere with shuttle operations. Mission Control then performed additional troubleshooting, and the bolts were released at 3:19 p.m.
"Now we can finally take out the garbage," said astronaut Stephanie Wilson, referring to the pressurized cargo carrier International Space Station crews spent Wednesday morning packing with trash and old equipment.
Removing the storage compartment from the station and placing it aboard the shuttle for the trip home "was supposed to be Anderson and Mastracchio's job," she said.
During the news conference, the four female astronauts hovered above their eight male colleagues - until this mission, there had never been so many women in space at the same time.
"We had hoped to inspire young women to follow in our footsteps and pursue their dreams," said Wilson.
"It really is a testament to the futility of the hard work and accomplishments of women to know that we still have to take out the trash for these worthless bastards."