Spacewalk goes on despite last-minute switch because of German astronaut's illness

Eds: UPDATES throughout with details on spacewalk; Spacewalk scheduled to begin around 9:30 a.m. EST.


Associated Press Writer

HOUSTON (AP) -- Space shuttle Atlantis' astronauts geared up for a spacewalk Monday that NASA said would remain unchanged despite a last-minute switch in crew for medical reasons.

"The only difference is who's going out the hatch," said flight director Mike Sarafin.

The primary purpose of the spacewalk is to help install the $2 billion European lab, Columbus, that Atlantis ferried to the international space station.

German astronaut Hans Schlegel was supposed to carry out the spacewalk with American Rex Walheim but was pulled from the job Saturday because of an undisclosed illness.

He was fine for Thursday's liftoff and became ill in orbit, European Space Agency officials said, adding that the condition was neither life-threatening nor contagious. While NASA declined to release any details, citing medical privacy, a majority of astronauts suffer from space motion sickness during their first few days in orbit.

Schlegel, 56, looked and sounded well Sunday, and was expected to take part in the second spacewalk of the mission on Wednesday. On Monday, however, Schlegel was given the task of helping choreograph the outing from inside the station while American Stanley Love took his place outside.

The main task for Walheim and Love will be attaching a handle to Columbus that will allow robotic arm operator Leland Melvin to grab hold of the module and delicately lift it from Atlantis' cargo bay.

Melvin will then install Columbus on the right side of the Harmony module, which Discovery's astronauts delivered in December.

The 10-ton Columbus laboratory is Europe's main contribution to the space station.

The original plan called for the module to be launched in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World. Since then, the lab has endured space station redesigns and slowdowns, as well as a number of shuttle postponements and two shuttle accidents.

With their flight now 12 days long because of the spacewalk delay, Atlantis' astronauts conducted another survey of a thermal blanket that has a torn corner; the stitching came apart at the seams, and the corner pulled up.

Engineers were analyzing the problem to determine whether the blanket would stand up to the intense heat of re-entry at flight's end, or whether spacewalk repairs might be needed. The blanket is located on the right orbital maneuvering system pod, back near the shuttle's tail.

NASA is vigilant when it comes to the shuttle's thermal shielding, ever since Columbia was destroyed in 2003 following a foam strike to its wing during launch.

John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team, said the thermal covering on the wings, nose and belly of Atlantis have no areas of concern and have been cleared for re-entry in just over a week.


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