HOUSTON - Russian computers that control the international space station's orientation and supply of oxygen and water have failed, potentially extending the space shuttle's mission _ or cutting it short.
Russian engineers aren't sure why the computers stopped working. A failure of this type has never occurred before on the space station.
The station is operated primarily by the Russian and U.S. space agencies, with contributions from the Canadian, European and Japanese space agencies.
"We have plenty of resources, so we have plenty of time to sort this out," said Mike Suffredini, NASA manager of the space station program.
But the computer failure could extend space shuttle Atlantis' mission by at least a day and, in a worst-case scenario, force the space station's three crew members to return to Earth early if the computers aren't fixed.
Atlantis' mission had already been extended from 11 to 13 days so that astronauts can go on a spacewalk to repair a thermal blanket covering an engine pod that peeled up during launch.
Suffredini said he expected the problem to be fixed in the next couple of days. In a worst-case scenario, if at least one of the computers wasn't operating after the shuttle left, the space station's three crew members could return to Earth, he said.
Thrusters on the docked space shuttle, along with the space station's gyroscopes, have been fired periodically to help maintain the space station's positioning since the computers failed earlier this week.
The space station needs the maneuvering thrusters controlled by the Russian computers for docking and avoiding space debris.
Without the Russian oxygen-machine running, the space station has a 56-day supply of oxygen left. "If we are in that position, we have an option to depart," Suffredini said.
Russian engineers think the computers' failure could have been triggered by a power source. The space station earlier this week got a new pair of solar arrays that were delivered by Atlantis and unfolded Tuesday to help provide power.
During a spacewalk on Wednesday, astronauts Patrick Forrester and Steven Swanson started to bring to life a rotating joint that will allow the new pair of solar arrays to track the sun. Astronauts will finish prepping the joint on another spacewalk.
Forrester and Swanson also helped retract a 115-foot wing of an old solar array that will be folded up into a storage box and moved to another location later this year.
Only 13 of the array's 31 sections were folded up, so flight controllers and astronauts will try to fold up the rest of the solar wing by remote commands on Thursday.
NASA managers decided Wednesday to use a spacewalk on Friday to repair a torn thermal blanket located over an engine pod near the shuttle's tail.
The astronauts will secure the blanket using staples found in the shuttle's medical kit and loop-headed pins that come from the shuttle's tile repair kit. If those methods don't work, NASA flight controllers will have the astronauts sew it into place using a stainless steel wire and an instrument that resembles a small needle.
Engineers don't think the damaged section of the thermal blanket, which protects part of the shuttle from the blazing heat of re-entry, would endanger the spacecraft during landing. But it could cause enough damage to require schedule-busting repairs.
NASA has focused intensely on any problems that could jeopardize a shuttle's re-entry into Earth's atmosphere since shuttle damage resulted in the 2003 Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts.
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