WASHINGTON – Two spacewalking astronauts Thursday found the reward for working so well and so fast is ... extra work.
American astronaut Jeff Williams and German astronaut Thomas Reiter were so efficient at important repairs to a key new cooling system for the international space station that they finished that primary job 90 minutes early in their 5-hour, 54-minute spacewalk.
But did NASA let them take some time to enjoy the view from 250 miles up?
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No. Mission controllers pulled out their massive honey-do list.
Install a floodlight on an exterior railcar, put a vent valve in the science lab, remove a faulty global positioning system antenna, move a foot restraint for future spacewalks, retrieve a connecting device and take a picture of a scratch on the outside of the space station.
At one point when some of the extra jobs were done and Mission Control couldn't radio up for a minute or so, Williams and Reiter considered the beautiful view.
"Just hanging out," Williams said happily.
"You can no longer hang out, I have more work for you," spacecraft communicator Stephen Bowen interrupted.
NASA ran through their planned "get-aheads" — tasks set aside if there is extra time — and came up with yet more work.
After Williams finished taking photographs of the scratch on the space station, he practically pleaded: "You did say that was our last task."
It was. The chores done, the spacewalk ended 36 minutes earlier than planned.
"Thomas, it feels good that they run of stuff for us to do," Williams told Reiter.
"And we will never ever let it happen again," Bowen said. "Wait till you see what we have for you next week."
The mix of work on this spacewalk, which does not have the derring-do of Hubble Space Telescope repairs or other construction work, is what will be happening frequently over the next several years, said lead spacewalk officer Paul Boehm.
More work will be done after the shuttle Atlantis arrives, later this month. NASA said Thursday that Aug. 27 will be the first liftoff attempt for that mission.
The spacewalk, the 69th in the construction of the space station, is important for expanding the orbital outpost with a flurry of 10 rocket launches in the next year, said Kirk Shireman, NASA deputy space station program manager.
As they ventured out of the space station Thursday morning, Reiter became the first spacewalker in history to wear a German flag on his American spacesuit.
Reiter walked in space twice before, both in Russian suits out of the old Russian Mir space station. This was the third spacewalk for Williams.
While the pair were outside, Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov remained inside the station.
Having Vinogradov available is a "significant help," said Dana Weigel, spacewalk flight director.
The space station has three occupants now for the first time since the Columbia accident in 2003, meaning spacewalks in the recent past had no one providing support inside.
Besides the cooling system repair, the astronauts also zipped through work with an infrared camera, taking pictures of mock-ups of the space shuttle heat shield to look for hidden holes, and the installation of a device to measure electrical charges outside the orbital outpost. The device measures voltage potential that could be "a shock hazard" to spacewalkers, said Weigel.
Reiter even had a moment to marvel at the weakening Tropical Storm Chris below.
"Incredible. It's not as bad out there," he said, noting the same changes as meteorologists on the ground.