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A reality check on dreams for space: the repairs

Saturday's arduous spacewalk to repair a solar panel at the space station is a reminder of the challenges inherent in maintaining new structures 'out there.'

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Saturday's spacewalk to fix a ripped solar panel on the International Space Station might be likened to threading cords through grommets of a camping tarp – except that the "tarp" was gently waving and electrically charged and the "repairman" was standing on the top rung of a stepladder attached to another stepladder.

The repair means the panels will be able to provide electricity for the space station. But it also points to the vital role that on-orbit maintenance will play – and the exacting demands it imposes – as visionaries set their sights on outposts and factories on the moon or Mars or on hotels and commercial laboratories orbiting high above Earth.

For engineers, the long-term challenge is to design simpler, more forgiving hardware for use in space. But for those dreaming of living on and beyond low-Earth orbit, Saturday's spacewalk is a reality check about what it takes to keep deep-space facilities running – and about the risks to people and investments if repairs fail.

The solar-panel spacewalk was "really kind of a wake-up call," says Adam Bruckner, who heads the aeronautics and astronautics department in the University of Washington's College of Engineering. Concepts for colonizing the moon or for commercial facilities on orbit "are interesting," he says, "but when you actually ... think about doing it over there, a lot of the maintenance ... and operational problems have been swept under the rug."

As reality TV, "Survivor" has nothing on Saturday's webcast of the tense, seven-hour spacewalk by astronauts Scott Parazynski and Col. Douglas Wheelock. Earlier in the week, the shuttle and station crews had moved a solar-panel assembly from a temporary spot on the ISS to its permanent location at one end of the station's backbone, or truss. As the space-station crew tried to unfurl the panels on Oct. 30, segments of one of the assembly's four wing-like arrays snagged and ripped, halting the deployment.

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