Let Go Of Tools In Space, And Lose Them Forever

One astronaut lost $100,000 of tools this way.
Let Go Of Tools In Space, And Lose Them Forever

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In November 2008, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper went on the third spacewalk of her career. It was a maintenance mission: One joint on the space station's solar wing wasn't working, so the wing couldn't rotate and drink up the sun's rays properly. The astronauts had to lubricate the joint, which meant venturing out into space with a bag of grease guns.  

One of those grease guns leaked in the bag, so when she reached in, her gloved hands became extra slippery. She tried to wipe the grease from her hands, and in the process let go of the bag, which went floating away. There were $100,000 in tools in that bag. Blasting off to retrieve them, even while they were still pretty close, was not considered advisable. She finished the mission by switching off tools with another astronaut on the walk, Stephen Bowen.

Both astronauts, and the space station they were working on, were orbiting the Earth at the time. That meant the precious tool bag, now out of reach, was also in orbit. In theory, an orbiting object stays in orbit forever, but there's still a bit of atmosphere acting on objects and providing drag at that altitude. That meant the bag kept losing energy and drifted farther and farther away from the station over time.

Over the next few months, amateur astronomers peering through their telescopes were able to see the floating bag, which was the size of a backpack. Finally, in August 2009, the bag entered the atmosphere proper. It completely burned up upon reentry. 

Back up in the space station, astronauts had had to adapt to being short a few tools. During her next spacewalk, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper again had to lubricate some components but didn't have a grease gun. She dipped her glove in grease and applied it by hand.

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Top image: NASA


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