SPACE CENTER, Houston - Discovery astronaut and mobile mechanic Stephen Robinson disappointed Mission Control last week by announcing that the damage to the ship's thermal tile belly was more extensive than first thought and immediately revised the cost of repair. Furthermore, the repairs would not be completed as soon as initially expected.
Robinson, perched on the space station's 58-foot robotic arm, shook his head ominously as he plucked two potentially dangerous strips of protruding fabric from Discovery's belly . "Oh my…it looks like we've got a problem with the harmonic stabilizer, too. I'll have to check with the space station to see if we've got that part in stock." Back at the station, Robinson showed Mission Control the two pieces of filler material he removed from the belly, but emphasized that they were just incidental to the main malfunction. "This is what's really causing the overheating problems," he said as he held up an oddly shaped gizmo of undetermined origin. "When this thing goes bad, everything else is toast….pardon the pun."
Deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale was livid when presented with the revised estimate and repair schedule. "What in the hell IS that thing?" Hale questioned the true function of the "harmonic stabilizer". "I don't see that on any of my schematics. Plus, I've got a written estimate here that I intend to make Robinson honor." Some even question if the part was really taken off the Shuttle at all. "That looks suspiciously like something off of a Russian craft," Hale observed. Robinson offered to return the part to NASA and allow them to take the Shuttle to another space station for a second opinion. But, given that Mir has been shut down for some time now, NASA officials admit their options are few.
The space repair began at 4:48 a.m. ET and wrapped up about 10:51 a.m. ET, resulting in 6 hours and three minutes of billable time. Japanese astronaut and master mechanic Soichi Noguchi presented Mission Control with an itemized list of the charges, including robotic arm rental, space walking fees and hourly rates for inspection and repair. There was also a "hazardous duty" charge for space walks during heightened solar activity, which Robinson waived out of goodwill, while Noguchi explained away a few discrepancies in the hourly rates of the two astronauts. "Robinson did all of the real work and I just provided ‘communications and visual support'. Actually, I only work on imports."
Robinson defended the new repair estimate, asserting that his inspection uncovered problems with the orbiter that were previously undetected, such as a damaged thermal blanket under one of the cockpit windows. A photographic analysis of the blanket verified Robinson's contention, showing that it was indeed punctured at one end and puffy at the other. At this point, NASA hasn't given the go ahead to perform any further repairs until it investigates other options and comes to grips with the current charges. In the interim, the ISS has impounded Discovery pending a satisfactory resolution of the dispute. "Pay me now, or pay me later," said Robinson.