Astronauts make first spacewalk of busy mission

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HOUSTON, Oct 26 (Reuters) Two astronauts floated outside the International Space Station today on a spacewalk that began a hectic work schedule to ready the orbital outpost for European and Japanese laboratories.

Americans Scott Parazynski and Douglas Wheelock were to work in space for more than six hours on the first of five spacewalks planned while space shuttle Discovery is docked at the station.

''What a gorgeous view, wow,'' said space rookie Wheelock as they passed over South America.

Their key tasks were to retrieve a broken antenna from the station, prepare the Italian-built Harmony module for unloading from Discovery's cargo bay and get a space station solar power unit for repositioning.

After they complete their work on Harmony, the 24-foot (7-metre) cylindrical module will be moved by robot arm to a temporary location on the station.

Later it will be transferred to its permanent position, where it will serve as a berthing port for the European and Japanese science units.

Discovery arrived at the station yesterday after launching on Tuesday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The shuttle is cheduled to return to Earth on Nov. 6.

NASA, the US space agency, has described the mission as one of its most complex and important because of implications for international expansion of the long-delayed space station.

Europe's Columbus module is scheduled for transport to the 100-billion dollars space outpost on December 6 aboard the shuttle Atlantis, five years behind schedule.

NASA plans call for Japan's multi-segment Kibo facility to be delivered on shuttle flights starting early in 2008 and hopes to complete the space station by 2010 when the aging shuttle fleet is to be retired.

Station construction was delayed in large part by the 2003 Columbia disaster in which the seven astronauts on board were killed when the shuttle disintegrated as it returned to Earth.

NASA did not launch another shuttle until 2005 as it investigated the accident and made changes to prevent another.

It was determined that Columbia was brought down by a hole in its wing heat shield, caused by a blow from fuel tank insulation foam that broke loose during launch.

NASA now includes heat shield inspections during flight and has developed repair methods in case damage is found.

Discovery's wing and nose heat shield were scanned on Wednesday with sensors on a robot arm and its belly photographed by station crew members as it approached for docking yesterday.

NASA officials said no damage had been found but data was still being studied.

REUTERS SS MIR KP1706

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