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Wed, Nov 14, 2007

Spacesuit Smell Could Delay Atlantis

Cosmonaut Reports Heat, Smell From Backpack

Where there's smoke... well, NASA isn't sure. A trainee working inside a spacesuit during a pressure-chamber test last week reported smelling smoke inside the suit, and that report could spell trouble for next month's planned launch of the shuttle Atlantis.

Citing an anonymous source, MSNBC says rookie Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko, 47, also reported "heat behind his neck," coming from the suit's backpack-mounted life-support system during a training exercise Friday. The test was quickly aborted, and the cosmonaut was hauled to safety as technicians retrieved the suspect backpack.

An internal NASA memo says experts are working around the clock to determine the cause of the smell, but so far have come up empty. That's good news, as it appears there is little risk for a catastrophic fire; it's also bad news, as space isn't kind of the environment where you want to face unexplainable problems.

And that means, for the time being, two spacewalks planned during Atlantis' mission next month to the International Space Station are reportedly on hold. Without the spacewalks -- needed to attach the Columbus module to the station -- there's little reason to launch Atlantis.

Extravehicular activities onboard the ISS -- like the kind conducted by Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko last Friday -- are also forbidden for the time being, as NASA works on the problem.

In the best-case scenario, NASA will soon isolate the cause for the reported smoke-smell, and determine it doesn't affect the suits already onboard the ISS. There is a chance, however, the smell points to a previously-unknown problem with the suits... one that may take months to fix.

Such an issue would delay future shuttle flights for the time being, as well as further EVAs, unless a method is found to adapt the Russian Orlan spacesuits onboard the station for extended EVA operations.

NASA expects a decision on whether to clear the suits by Thursday, according to spacesuit division chief Steve Doering.

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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