THE BROADER PICTURE / Around the world with a spanner

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The Independent Culture
THE VIEW may be wonderful, but these astronauts have other things on their minds. Using a spanner 200 miles above Earth while travelling at 17,500mph in the near-perfect vacuum of space takes a lot of concentration.

The two shuttle astronauts are testing tools that will be used to mend the Hubble space telescope next month. Wearing new suits designed to make space work easier, they are walking in the weightlessness of a shuttle's cargo bay, securely tethered to prevent them drifting off into oblivion. The walk is the culmination of months of intense training, during which every mishap imaginable - including death - is thoroughly rehearsed.

A lot rests on December's mission to repair the telescope, which is suffering from myopia because its main mirror was built slightly out of true. The future of the dollars 1.5bn telescope is at stake; the American space agency NASA is also banking on total success to repair its own credibility, after a series of highly damaging blunders that has called into question the costs of sending men and women into space. Observers predict that if the mission fails, NASA will not survive in its present form.

Much effort has gone into making the 'eva' (extra-vehicular activity) suits more user-friendly. The gloves have been redesigned to allow astronauts to manipulate tools with greater dexterity. In training tanks on Earth, crew members spend hours working underwater in their suits to familiarise themselves with the difficulties of space work. Before going outside the shuttle, they sit in them for three hours breathing pure oxygen to purge the bloodstream of nitrogen, an essential precaution against the bends.

The shuttle photographed here is the Discovery, during a flight earlier this year in the course of which two satellites were put into orbit and the final tests on the telescope repair equipment carried out. Channel 4's Equinox programme (tonight at seven) followed the mission from start to finish; this is the first time a television team has been given such access to the elaborate launch preparations.

As each shuttle crew arrives at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, they go through the well practised emergency routines for the last time. The memory of the 1986 disaster, when Space Shuttle Challenger blew up soon after launch killing all seven crew, lingers.

The shuttle mission filmed for Equinox suffered three abortive attempts at lift-off. On the first occasion, at launch minus 20 minutes, an electrical circuit inside the launch pad developed a fault and the launch was abandoned. A week later, at launch minus 19 seconds, a small turbine in the base of one of the solid rocket boosters failed to reach its required speed and computers automatically shut down the launch procedures. Three weeks later, the computers aborted the launch just three seconds before take- off, after detecting a fault in a fuel valve. This time the engines needed replacing. Finally, on the fourth attempt, the shuttle took off, two months behind schedule.

Equinox has managed to obtain film footage of the mission, taken by the astronauts themselves and from a remote-control camera on board one of the satellites as it is released, and then recaptured, by the shuttle. The programme-makers also describe one of the least talked-about problems of living in space: how to go to the lavatory. It is, apparently, all done with tubes and suction, as well as the careful deployment of an air jet.-

(Photographs omitted)