Earlier this week, NASA was patting itself on the back for an unplanned spacewalk to stop an ammonia cooling leak on the International Space Station. The 5-hour-30-minute walk on May 11 went as planned, but it was the exception to a long routine of carefully planned and choreographed work by spacewalking astronauts. The Apollo, Skylab and early Shuttle missions were full of improvised moments on-orbit -- it is time for NASA to get back some of that mojo along with a quicker way of getting supplies to orbit.
Apollo missions were filled with occasions of balky hardware, ranging from docking adapters to malfunctioning computers. One of the greatest feats of improvisation was the safe return of the Apollo 13 crew after an oxygen tank exploded in its service module, rendering the command module unable to support life for an extended period of time. The three crewmembers used the lunar lander as a lifeboat and propulsion system, carefully rationing power. Carbon dioxide build-up was solved by duct-taping together a contraption to adapt the command module's square scrubber cartridges to fit the lunar lander's round cartridge -- literally a square-peg in round-hole problem!
Skylab's first manned mission was a large fix-it job to restore power and temperature control. The lab lost its micrometeor/sun shield during its trip to orbit, ripping away one solar panel and pinning a second, keeping it from being properly deployed. NASA had to quickly assemble a tool kit to cut away a restraining strap on the solar array and construct a replacement sun shade ( supplemented by a second one on a the next mission) that could fit into an Apollo command module along with three astronauts and the other gear they were scheduled to bring to the orbiting station.
The Space Shuttle proved that humans could fix satellites in orbit -- even passively uncooperative ones, such as INTELSAT 603 in May 1992. After several attempts to capture the satellite with a bar in order to put a new kick motor, three astronauts took an unplanned space walk from Endeavour and simply reached out by hand to grab the satellite, hauling it into the cargo bay to put a new solid rocket motor on it.
However, on-the-fly fixes tend to be the exception rather than the rule -- at least for now. Missions Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) will take astronauts farther away from quick communication with Mission Control. Waiting on Houston to provide advice and a detailed fix could prove to be anywhere from annoying to fatal, depending on the problems future astronauts may face on Mars and other deep space missions. Astronauts will need to be able to "MacGyver" more freely and more often as equipment breaks down and other issues crop up.
Edited by Alisen Downey