CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – Spacewalking Russians gathered seeds and spores that have been stuck outside the International Space Station for months if not years and gave a ceremonial send-off Wednesday to a flash drive containing special messages for their motherland.
Cosmonaut Sergey Volkov waited for good camera views before tossing the flash drive overboard as the space station sailed 250 miles (402 km) above the Pacific. The blue, cloud-specked Earth provided a stunning backdrop.
The flash drive includes videos and messages pertaining to the 70th anniversary of Russia’s Victory Day last year. It was attached to a small bundle stuffed with towels to provide some bulk.
“There it goes,” Volkov said in Russian as he let go of the package with his right gloved hand. “Just beautiful,” he noted as it spun slowly, appearing to tumble toward Earth. Spacewalking partner Yuri Malenchenko floated nearby.
“That’s perfect guys,” Russian Mission Control radioed from outside Moscow.
The job was added just a few days ago. NASA said the jettisoned package would pose no hazard to the orbiting lab. Flight controllers expect the bundle to harmlessly re-enter the atmosphere in a few weeks.
With that accomplished, the spacewalkers set off to retrieve research equipment that has been outdoors since 2009. The trays include plant seeds as well as spores from fungi and bacteria; the specimens typically were replenished every year or two and returned to Earth for analysis. The cosmonauts set out fresh experiments elsewhere on the space station, then found themselves fussing over a dispenser in a surface-coating experiment.
The roll of tapelike film in the dispenser kept jamming, frustrating Malenchenko and Volkov as they tried to coat an outdoor sample board. Only one attempt appeared to succeed.
“It glued on so nicely. It’s like a perfect sticker,” one of the spacewalkers reported. “Are we done?” They weren’t, but Russian Mission Control advised them a few minutes later to wrap it up and head back in.
The spacewalk lasted nearly five hours.
NASA, meanwhile, is still trying to understand why water leaked into a U.S. astronaut’s helmet last month.
The Jan. 15 spacewalk had to be cut short because of the problem, a repeat of what happened to an Italian spacewalker in 2013. That first incident was considerably more serious, involving much more leakage.
The Russians use different types of suits, which functioned well Wednesday. As for U.S. spacewalks, astronauts will go out only in an emergency until the leakage is understood and corrected, according to NASA.
Six men currently live at the space station: three Russians, two Americans and one Briton.
The two veteran cosmonauts returned to the International Space Station after replacing experiment equipment that is testing how materials and biological samples fare in the harsh environment of space.
Yuri Malenchenko and Sergey Volkov left the station’s airlock at 7:55 a.m. EST (1255 GMT) .
The men finished 45 minutes early and floated back inside the orbital outpost.
“We’re ahead of the game,” an awaiting crewmate, speaking in Russian, told the spacewalkers, a translator reported.
Malenchenko and Volkov began their spacewalk by casting off a flash drive into space, giving a ceremonial send-off to recorded messages and video from last year’s 70th anniversary of Victory Day, said NASA mission commentator Rob Navias.
Victory Day commemorates the former Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.
The flash drive eventually will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up.
Malenchenko, who was making his sixth spacewalk, and Volkov, on his fourth, then collected samples from outside the airlock’s hatch door and from a window. The swabs will be analyzed to determine how much residue from the station’s steering thrusters has built up on the surfaces.
The cosmonauts subsequently made their way to the site of a seven-year-old European science experiment holding plant seeds, bacterial spores, fungi and other samples. They removed the equipment and installed other devices to test how biological samples and various materials, such as coatings used on spacecraft, withstand the extreme temperature swings and high radiation of space.
The station is a $100 billion research complex owned and operated by 15 nations. Rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts have staffed the orbital outpost since November 2000.
The first crewmembers to spend one year in orbit, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, are scheduled to return to Earth on March 1.