Two astronauts played catch in space with a satellite... ... to stow it safely on board the shuttle Columbia

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The Independent Online
"I just had to stop by and pick up a satellite. I'll be home by suppertime," said the American astronaut Winston Scott to his wife, watching at mission control in Florida. He would have been a little late: it took an hour before he and Japanese astronaut Takao Doi reached out and grabbed the 1.3-tonne Spartan satellite as it orbited the Earth at 2am yesterday.

The rescue was a huge relief for the astronauts - especially Doi, who was the first Japanese to go on a spacewalk.

The trouble with Spartan, an observation satellite that cost $10m (pounds 6.13m), began almost as soon as it was released from the Shuttle last Friday. It was intended to fly free of the Shuttle for two days, studying the outer atmosphere of the Sun, in conjunction with another solar observatory called Soho.

But first it had to perform a manoeuvre to show that its control system was working - but didn't. The astronauts tried to retrieve it using the shuttle's robot arm, but hit it and sent it spinning.

The reason for the control system failure could be human error or a computer fault, Nasa said yesterday.

The shuttle approached Spartan from below, flying in close formation for about 90 minutes before it was correctly positioned for the rescue. The spacewalkers leaned back on opposite sides of Columbia's cargo bay, Spartan hanging in space over their heads, as the mission commander, Kevin Kregel, inched Columbia to within arm's reach of the ailing satellite.

"OK, standby, standby, capture. I've got my end." Scott said. "I've got my end," echoed Doi as each grabbed hold of Spartan's protruding telescope tubes.

The rescue was made easier because the satellite's spin had slowed to a near stop. But Manhandling the bulky spacecraft onto a cradle in the shuttle's cargo bay proved tricky, and needed help from the robot arm.

Further steps for mankind: Top - The Japanese astronaut Takao Doi (right) and American astronaut Winston Scott prepare to retrieve a satellite and place it in the payload bay of the space shuttle Columbia on Monday. The errant solar observatory tumbled out of control after its release on Friday AP Photograph/Nasa

Centre: The two crew members of Columbia begin their recovery of the Spartan-201 satellite. The satellite's navigational system failed shortly after it was released, prompting the rescue mission

AFP Photograph/Nasa

Bottom: Winston Scott, left, and Takao Doi, right, move the Spartan satellite into the payload bay of the space shuttle Columbia, also on Monday, in this image taken from television

AP Photograph/Nasa