Repair job by astronaut feels awfully familiar


AS A HOME-REPAIR guy, I was on the same wavelength with astronaut Stephen Robinson this week as he undertook his historic mending mission fixing the belly of the space shuttle Discovery.

Although his task - removing the protruding gap filler from the shuttle tiles as he zipped through space at 17,500 mph - was a bit more complicated than the average "honey-do" project, there were, I thought, some similarities between them.

First of all, there were plenty of second-guessers, spacewalk superintendents, who were looking over his shoulder as he labored. Not only did Robinson have scores of colleagues at the Goddard Space Flight Center coaching him, he also had millions of television viewers monitoring his every move. Even President Bush got into the act, phoning the astronauts and giving them a little pep talk before the job started. Talk about pressure to perform. I hate it when people do that to me, telling me, for example, how to spackle. I say, give the guy a little room to work.

Along with all the attention came unsolicited opinions on how the work on the shuttle was going. No sooner had I tuned into coverage on The Early Show when one of the CBS correspondents said she was surprised that the patch job would take so long.

"Hey, lady," I wanted to yell at the TV set, "that is how things go in the fix-it business, everything is always behind schedule and slow moving. Get real."

A major parallel that I saw between Robinson's work in outer space and my work on the home front was the high level of worry displayed by his companions.

NASA's big fear seemed to be that Robinson might botch the job, touch the shuttle's fragile tiles with his helmet or boots and make things worse. The admonition "don't screw up" sounded familiar to me and to any guy who has ever stuck his head under a sink, trying to fix the household plumbing.

While Robinson's preparation for his task was more thorough than most of my weekend domestic undertakings, it did possess some similarities to my Earthbound labors. Take for instance the number of tools he carried. Robinson loaded a forceps, a hacksaw and pair of scissors in his tool bag, then he hopped on the space station's robot arm and went to work. He did not use any of them. He ended up lugging around more tools than he needed, a predicament common to weekend repair guys.

Moreover, his best tool was his hand. He used it to remove the two pieces of protruding gap filler, which to me looked like the dabs of toilet paper that guys stick on their faces when they cut themselves shaving.

Being a guy, Robinson saved those pieces of gap filler. Guys always save stuff like that. You put it in a jar or stash it on your basement workbench because you never know when it might come in handy. Robinson, I suspect, will have to turn over the pieces of gap filler to NASA engineers who will study them for weeks. Maybe later he will get them back. Then he can either put them in his basement, or - if his wife will let him - put them on a plaque and hang it in the family room as a trophy.

I noticed that Robinson didn't drop or misplace any tools. That is not normal behavior for us weekend repair types. Often a good portion of the workday is spent locating the tool you had in your hand just a minute ago. But it is probably a good idea not to drop anything in space. As I understand the work conditions out there, anything you drop could become a hazard, whizzing along at 17,500 mph.

That is booking. Things move fast out there. When Robinson began this assignment he was about 200 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. When he finished he was over the coast of France.

That too rang true to me. Once a fella wraps a project up, especially in August, he heads for the ocean.

The final detail convincing me that the astronaut was simpatico with us toolbox boys was what happened once he had completed the job. No sooner had he finished one chore, fixing the gap fillers, than another one popped up. A thermal blanket below the commander's window of the shuttle was ripped during launch. A suggestion was made that maybe he could fix that too, a little later.

That is how it goes in the repair guy's universe, you get a lot of advice, most of it telling you not to screw up. You tote more tools than you need, and when you finish a tough task and are aiming for the beach, another job suddenly appears on the horizon.

I was glad to hear that the blanket job was canceled and that the repair guy in space got the weekend off.

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