March 16, 2008 / 1:18 AM / in 10 years

Space station robotic handyman flexes its muscles

<p>Spacewalker Mike Foreman is seen outside the International Space Station's Qwest airlock in this view from the helmet camera of fellow spacewalker Rick Linnehan at the beginning of their extravehicular excursion (EVA) in this image from NASA TV March 15, 2008. Linnehan and Foreman will complete the assembly of the Canadian Space Agency's two-armed robotic system Dextre during their EVA. REUTERS/NASA TV.</p>

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Astronauts aboard the International Space Station put their new mechanical maintenance man through a trial workout on Sunday, testing the joints on its gangly arms while crewmates prepared for another spacewalk to get the robot ready for service.

The Canadian-built robot, named Dextre, was assembled during an occasionally frustrating spacewalk that ended earlier Saturday by shuttle Endeavour astronauts Richard Linnehan and Michael Foreman.

Dextre’s 11-foot (3.35-metre) arms were flown to the station anchored -- at some points too tightly -- to a work pallet.

“We may have to get medieval on Mr. Dextre,” Linnehan remarked at one point when even a pry bar was not readily freeing a stuck bolt.

Eventually, the astronauts were able to pin Dextre’s arms on his body, clearing the way for a spacewalk on Monday to outfit the handyman with a tool caddy, television cameras and other accessories.

Dextre is designed to operate on the station’s robot arm, adding manual dexterity and another 30 feet of reach to assist spacewalking astronauts during station repair and maintenance tasks.

The latest addition to the $100 billion station is a storage closet for Japan’s elaborate laboratory -- named Kibo or “Hope” -- which is due to arrive in May. A final section is scheduled to be installed in 2009.

NASA has until 2010 to complete construction of the station and retire its three-ship shuttle fleet.

Endeavour arrived at the station on Wednesday to install the first piece of Kibo, deliver and set up Dextre and replace one of the station’s three live-aboard crewmembers.

NASA’s Garrett Reisman is swapping places with French astronaut Leopold Eyharts, who has been aboard since NASA’s last shuttle crew delivered Europe’s Columbus research laboratory to the station in February.

During Endeavour’s 12-day stay at the station, NASA also plans a spacewalk to test a technique to repair a damaged shuttle heat shield.

While Endeavour’s heat shield has been cleared from any damage from its March 11 liftoff, NASA wants to be sure to have options for future crews if their ship becomes too damaged to safely fly back through the atmosphere for landing.

Endeavour is due back at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 26.

NASA developed an array of inspection tools, repair techniques and emergency procedures for handling shuttle damage after losing Columbia and its seven-member crew in 2003.

The shuttle was hit by a piece of falling debris during launch that damaged a wing, leading to the ship’s breakup 16 days later as it flew toward Florida for landing.

In wake of the accident, the United States decided to retire the shuttle fleet for good by September 30, 2010, and redirect its human spaceflight initiatives toward getting astronauts back on the moon and developing technologies to travel even farther out in the solar system.

Editing by Philip Barbara

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