Johnson Space Center ‘prepared to delay space walk by astronauts over risk’

More than one ‘spacewalk safety review’ had been conducted since October

One of NASA’s veteran astronauts says a 20-minute delay caused to spare astronauts in the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite’s failure in 2015 was “a serious situation”.

In an appearance on CNBC, retired Nasa astronaut Eileen Collins said that a space debris risk to the astronauts had also been flagged in September. She said: “When I saw that, I said, ‘Are you kidding me? That’s unacceptable.’ They knew [about the hazard] in late September. They must have known it since then.”

Collins explained that there have been six space walk training sessions in the last month, in preparation for Thursday’s mission to the ISS, and that mission controllers had again been informed of the threat.

Excerpts from a press conference on Sunday afternoon in which she gave her interview were not immediately available but her notes showed she had previously discussed the issue with mission controllers on 10 October and 16 November.

The problem, Collins explained, is that this was the second spacewalk training session to go ahead in six weeks without a delay. Other spacewalks have taken place without such reassurances.

Collins explained: “It was the most serious concern. It was the culmination of a two and a half year effort to communicate with our folks that there was a risk. They knew about it in the last month. I think they’ve had six spacewalks since the [Accident Investigation Board] report back in 2015, so they had a significant amount of spaceflight experience.

“But nobody’s saying they’re safe … it was a serious situation, and the fact that they didn’t know, how dare they not know. So they should’ve had a delay.”

In September this year, the National Space Council was convened by Donald Trump. Its strategy statement outlined the need for “infrastructure and policy changes to build a thriving space sector and stimulate economic growth”, and called for “inclusion of a broad-based understanding of space risks, as well as of the capabilities of the programmes and programs to which those risks relate.”

The decision on Thursday’s spacewalk was taken after the National Space Council decided that it would be “more prudent and safe to proceed”.

A NASA spokesperson said they were unable to comment due to the confidential nature of the spacewalk.

NASA’s astronauts will now step into the ISS six years after the failed 6 October 2015 spacewalk. It will be the 59th spacewalk in a decade of ISS work, and the second to be performed by NASA, but the first by another agency. They will be managed by the station’s mission control in Houston.

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