Illini alum stepping out to fix space station

Illini alum stepping out to fix space station

Hopkins' first spacewalk is set for this Saturday

Illinois' favorite astronaut will strap on a spacesuit and go for a 6-hour walk outside of the International Space Station on Saturday.

NASA has ordered up a series of what it termed urgent spacewalks to fix a broken cooling line at the station. Officials decided Tuesday to send former Illini football team captain Mike Hopkins and fellow American astronaut Rick Mastracchio out as soon as possible to replace a pump with a bad valve.

It's a major repair that will require two or three spacewalks — which NASA has scheduled for Saturday, Monday and possibly Christmas Day.

Hopkins, a first-time space flier, and Mastracchio, a veteran spacewalker, trained for just such a repair before rocketing into orbit. They have been prepping all week, just in case they got the call from Houston.

That first spacewalk will be an experience Hopkins won't soon forget. Take it from fellow UI-alum-turned-astronaut Joe Tanner. The Danville native performed seven of them during four shuttle missions — and still remembers the nerves of No. 1 vividly.

"What you're not ready for is the actual emotional experience of being in the vacuum of space and how cool that is," Tanner said Tuesday night from Colorado, where he now works as a university professor. "When you first pop out of the hatch, you know this is a different environment."

But, Tanner was quick to add, "I would love to be in his place."

NASA defines spacewalks as "any time an astronaut gets out of a vehicle in space." Dale Gardner (UI Class of 1970) and Tanner (Class of '73) both did it, and now Hopkins (Class of '91) is set to join them at roughly 6:10 a.m. CST Saturday in the first of three 6-hour walks. Each will be broadcast live on NASA TV.

The Expedition 38 astronauts' new mission is to fix a broken cooling line at the space station. That requires replacing a pump with a bad valve with one of the spares they keep onboard. This is the same bulky 780-pound pump that was replaced by spacewalking astronauts in 2010. Three spacewalks were needed then.

NASA hopes Hopkins and Mastracchio can make the swap in two trips and not have to spend the holiday working outside. Astronauts have ventured outside of their spaceship on Dec. 25 only once — in 1973 during Skylab, America's first space station. In 1999, shuttle astronauts finished a series of spacewalks on the Hubble Space Telescope on Christmas Eve.

Half of the space station's cooling system shut down last Wednesday, forcing the six-man crew to turn off all nonessential equipment, including some science experiments. Because of the valve failure, one of the two cooling lines became too cold. The cooling system is critical for dispelling heat generated by on-board equipment.

Despite the malfunction, NASA stressed the astronauts remain safe and comfortable. But it wants the system back up to full strength, in case of another failure that could leave the orbiting outpost more vulnerable than it is right now.

Tanner's first two spacewalks were to repair and make upgrades on the Hubble Space Telescope. His other five were assembly missions for the International Space Station. All were planned except for one — to repair a mechanism that failed after the first walk on that flight.

That was a different era — and required different training. Space shuttle crews, Tanner said, spent about seven hours in a large pool (the Neutral Buoyancy Lab) for every hour they spent outside their spacecraft. Space station crew members get much less training, he added.

"They have no idea what they might have to do, so they are trained on more general skills," Tanner said. "They can be as good as the shuttle crews were but generally are not as efficient due to less training time."

Another difference between Tanner's time in space and Hopkins' — how America followed the drama.

Tanner cherished that one video conference he was able to have with his family during each mission. Hopkins, meanwhile, has taken to Twitter several times a week, cheering on the Illini and sharing his experiences with 37,002 followers of @AstroIllini.

Unfortunately, those stunning photos he's been posting lately — of a volcano in Chile, a glacier in Patagonia, nighttime in Europe — might be all his fans see for a while. The spacewalks will take priority over everything — from the launch of a supply ship from Virginia to Hopkins' tweets.

"The next week will be busy with space walks so not much tweeting from here," Mastracchio wrote from space Tuesday.

Live from space

You watched him lay out wide receivers for John Mackovic's Illini. Now, see Mike Hopkins on his first spacewalk high above Earth.

Where:NASA TV, which is available online at nasa.gov.

When:Broadcast begins at 5:15 a.m. CST Saturday. Walk is set for 6:10 a.m.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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