Spacewalking astronauts lose piece of shielding, floats away

Spacewalking astronauts carried out an impromptu patch job outside the International Space Station on Thursday, after losing a vital piece of cloth shielding when it floated away.

So far, Whitson and NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough have successfully installed an upgraded computer relay box and hooked up cables and electrical connections on the Pressurized Mating Adapter-3. Mission Control said there was no risk of it hitting the space station.

"Expedition 50 Flight Engineer Peggy Whitson is set to go on her eighth spacewalk Thursday morning and surpass astronaut Suni Williams' record for the most spacewalks by a female astronaut", NASA scientists wrote on a blog post on Wednesday.

"Thank you guys, you did an unbelievable job, you had to deal with, obviously, the issue early on and came up with a great plan", Kimbrough radioed flight controllers. Mission Control monitored the shield as it drifted away and, a couple hours later, determined it posed no risk to the 250-mile-high outpost.

NASA spokesman Dan Huot said the three remaining shields were installed to cover the most vulnerable spots, the report said.

The spacewalkers then retrieved the thermal shield Whitson had removed from PMA-3 earlier and used cables and clamps to hold it in place over the Tranquility port, filling in the gap left by the lost panel. When unfolded, it is about 2 inches thick and measures about 5 feet by 2 feet.

Cameras on the station tracked the debris shield bag as it sailed into the distance.

The space walk formally began at 7:29am when Whitson and her NASA colleague Shane Kimbrough switched their spacesuits to battery power before venturing into space. It will serve as a parking spot for future commercial crew capsules.

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson just became the world's most experienced female spacewalker. A docking mechanism will be attached to the outboard end of the tunnel late this year or early next.

The third spacewalk is scheduled for April 6, with Whitson and Pesquet and robotic help from Kimbrough. This is her third tour of duty aboard the ISS. But mission managers are debating the possibility of keeping Whitson in orbit until September to maximize research time. Overall, she's spent more than 500 days off of planet earth-also more than any other woman.