Nine years ago an emergency doc performed “hairy” surgery in space


Enlarge / Over Astronaut Kate Rubins’ left shoulder, the repairs done by Scott Parazynski in 2007 still look great. (credit: NASA)

It made for one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the International Space Station. Dangling at the end of a 50-foot boom, attached to the station’s robotic arm, astronaut Scott Parazynski could barely reach his target at the distant edge of the orbiting laboratory—a torn solar array.

Stakes were high in late 2007. NASA had just recovered from the space shuttle Columbia tragedy, and its primary focus was completing construction of the space station. Astronauts had added a new 110-foot solar array in preparation for the expansion, and the additional power was needed for new European and Japanese modules. But a 2.5-foot tear had formed in the array, likely due to a stray guide wire. Absent a repair, mission managers had two options: leave the array as is and use the available power, or jettison it. The problem with the first solution was that the tear might spread, making the array unusable. That could have meant no expansion for the station, which at the time was a only fraction of its finished size.

The cobbled-together plan called for Scott Parazynski, an emergency physician by trade and one of the agency’s most experienced spacewalkers, to use a wire-and-tape contraption he and his crew mates built on orbit. The physician would then thread the cufflink-like device through reinforced holes on the panels, allowing them to take the strain of a fully extended solar array.

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