Astronaut shows cool tools of spacewalk trade
ATLANTA (CNN) -- As space shuttle Endeavour crewmembers did construction work on the international space station this week, NASA astronaut Bob Curbeam Jr., joined CNN Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien for a show-and-tell demonstration of some really cool tools for spacewalkers.
O'BRIEN: It's kind of like Bob Vila meets Neil Armstrong here, what do you think? This is Bob Curbeam, who is a U.S. Naval commander NASA astronaut, who has three spacewalks logged on the international space Station back in February of 2001. He helped install the Destiny laboratory.
We have got a bunch of tools here talk about. But let's just quickly check in on what is going on in space 240 miles above us, as we take a look at some live pictures [Thursday], coming down from the space shuttle Endeavour and international space station Alpha.
Let me just give you a sense of where you are. You are looking at the Destiny laboratory now, and this is from the head-mounted camera. I believe this is Philippe Perrin's hands right there.
Over there Franklin Chang-Diaz, who is on his record-matching seventh shuttle mission. This is his third spacewalk, though. He was a rookie spacewalker at the beginning of this mission, and handled that with great aplomb, as everybody expected him to do, and as we look at these close ups and these hand-holds -- first of all, Bob Curbeam, does it make you want to be back up there?
CURBEAM: Yes, every time you see somebody doing a spacewalk, you want to be part of that, that is natural I think.
O'BRIEN: When you are out in space, and he is working there, it looks easier than it is, of course -- we have here, a glove that can be inflated to the 4 PSI [pounds per square inch], exactly what a suit is inflated to. An you realize people are working in an inflated balloon. How hard is it when you are fighting against your suit that way?
CURBEAM: They design the suits very well but they have resistance, and it makes the work a little bit more difficult in this short-sleeve environment.
O'BRIEN: Let's go to the high-end here. This is a tool we see a lot. We're not seeing it right this moment out there in space. If we see it, we'll let you know. This is called the PGT -- NASA has to have an acronym for everything of course -- pistol-grip tool. It's really a cordless drill on steroids. Tell us about this and how important it is to the construction of the space station?
CURBEAM: We try to use this just to save our arms and our energy, to tighten or loosen any bolts that we are going to work on. This is the battery pack down here. It is a special cordless drill, because it also counts turns, measures torque, does all of that stuff, and you have a bunch of preprogrammed modes that you can use for the specific bolt that you're turning.
O'BRIEN: So as you turn it, you can turn it in a very specific way, right down to the number of turns, that kind of thing. And if you mess up, which of course you never would, you've got the space crow bar, or bolt puller. This is just off the shelf stuff. But the difference here, you notice this has got a little ring on there, which leads to us to a discussion of tethering.
That's a very important thing on a spacewalk, because if you lose the tool, it becomes a piece of space junk, and the folks at space command don't want to be tracking that for the next couple of years. So tell me about this.
CURBEAM: And that's where this kind of thing comes in. We can't just set our tools down on a tool bench, so we have to have some way to tether them, to and keep them in place, so we use something like, called a fish stringer, or a fuse tether assembly is what we call it in NASA vernacular. What this allows us to do is keep the tools in one place, and that's why you see the tether loops on everything.
O'BRIEN: Anything ever get away from you?
CURBEAM: No, I didn't lose anything. I almost lost one thing, but I caught it before it floated away.
O'BRIEN: This is a tool belt, and this segment would not be a full segment if we did not talk about tool belts, not what you would expect to wear on Earth. Of course it's this is heavy, I don't how much it weighs, probably about 10 pound I guess.
CURBEAM: More like about 20, 25.
O'BRIEN: Twenty pounds. In any case, this kind of attaches on to your lower abdomen, and this provides you a lot of capability, right?
CURBEAM: Right, and one of the things is does, is it allows you to actually tether two different items; like if you want to stay in place, you can use this small mini-workstation to tether somewhere, to stay in your workstation. It also allows you to hook your tools onto yourself, like this trash bag, with a bayonet fitting here, goes down into the mini workstation, and you clip it in, and now you can have a little trash bag for any spare bolts or anything like that.
O'BRIEN: [During a spacewalk], you always want to have at least one connection, really two connections, right?
CURBEAM: Right, exactly. And the biggest thing is first, you have to be tethered to some hard point like the arm, or the space station itself, and then of course anything you have in your hands you are carrying around, you also have to tether that.
O'BRIEN: There is no work site like this on Earth quite literally. As you look down at the planet and you're doing this, and you steal a glance or two, do you ever get vertigo or sensation of falling.
CURBEAM: I never did. A lot of people said they did. I never got that, but of course, you know, you do get disoriented sometimes as to where on the station you are, because everything is circular, tubular, things like that, so you have to remind yourself where on the space station you are constantly.
O'BRIEN: Let's talk about this device briefly before we get away. This is an interesting clamping device. It's rather ingenious. How does that help you in space?
CURBEAM: The most important thing in space, when you're doing a spacewalk, you're doing any work is to keep your hands free and keep yourself stable.
And what this does, this hooks into the tool belt on this end, on the mini workstation, and then you can actually use this and clip in to a hand rail. And then you tighten this ballstack inside of here, and it gives you a stable work site with both of your hands free, so you can use the cordless drill, you can move things around, and do whatever you need to do.
O'BRIEN: And if you did not do that, and you started that cordless drill, you would literally start spinning, wouldn't you?
CURBEAM: Exactly, unless you were holding on with the other hand. You have to stabilize yourself. It's the most important thing during a spacewalk.
O'BRIEN: Take a look at that view as we look at the international space station. Once again Philippe Perrin's heads-up view of that foot restraint that he's working on, and he is at the end -- this the shuttle robotic arm, correct, that we are seeing the end of?
CURBEAM: That's correct.
O'BRIEN: Now -- and the mission today is to replace a wrist joint in the space station robotic arm, also made by Canada. It's not that it has malfunction, but it's redundant backup system has, and this is actually a fairly significant piece of surgery, isn't it?
CURBEAM: Yes, they have to remove the latching end defective from the end of the arm. They remove the faulty joints, put a new joint on it, and then replace the latching end defective.
O'BRIEN: All right, I have to ask you about these, because this looks like you could do some damage with these. When are you a doing surgery, this is what you need. What are these used for? If you are trying to get into a spot?
CURBEAM: Any time have you a small item that you don't have enough room to get your fingers on, because, remember, because you have these gloves on, you don't not have the type of dexterity you would have with a regular. So anytime you have to grab something very small, you would use the forceps.
O'BRIEN: Wow, interesting. And finally, vice grips. These are stainless steel vice grips. These come from medical applications. You know, there is obvious types of things you would be working on, bolts and so forth. Do you use these frequently?
CURBEAM: Not often. Usually we have specifically sized materials. But anytime you have an off-size thing, you can use this, and of course we have the tether loop here, and that's the major addition that we put on it to make it space friendly.
O'BRIEN: Let's bring in [CNN anchor] Daryn [Kagan]. Daryn, do you have a question?
KAGAN: Yes, a quick question for astronaut Curbeam. We had heard earlier about Philippe Perrin having a problem with his foot, with his suit. Did you ever have a problem with your suit when have a problem with your suit doing a spacewalk?
CURBEAM: Actually I did. I had the same problem he had. I had a very bad pinching on the same spacewalk, and the pain is intense, so just seeing him overcome something like let's me know anyway that he means business, and that he will do well today.
KAGAN: And just real quickly, I want to know if [Curbeam] is as helpful with his wife here on Earth doing fix-it jobs as he is when he's spacewalking on the international space station.
CURBEAM: I do not think I want to answer that question.
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