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S132-E-012208 (23 May 2010) --- The International Space Station is featured in this image photographed by an STS-132 crew member on space shuttle Atlantis after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation. Undocking of the two spacecraft occurred at 10:22 a.m. (CDT) on May 23, 2010, ending a seven-day stay that saw the addition of a new station module, replacement of batteries and resupply of the orbiting outpost.

The International Space Station, as seen from the space shuttle Atlantis in May.

Photograph courtesy NASA

Ker Than

for National Geographic News

Published August 6, 2010

The first of two emergency spacewalks to repair a failed cooling system aboard the International Space Station (ISS) will take place early Saturday morning, NASA has announced.

The seven-hour spacewalk, or extra-vehicular activity (EVA), will begin at 6:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, followed by a second spacewalk Wednesday.

Repairs will be conducted by U.S. astronauts Douglas Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson, who are among the six astronauts currently living aboard the ISS as part of Expedition 24.

Over the course of both spacewalks, the pair will swap out a broken 780-pound (354-kilogram) ammonia pump with one of four spares stored on the space station's exterior. They'll also disconnect, then reconnect, the electrical and ammonia lines running between the pump and the station.

Astronauts on Earth are currently practicing the swap in a huge swimming pool at Johnson Space Center in Houston called the Neutral Buoyancy Lab.

Video: Astronauts Robert Satcher, Jr., and Rick Sturckow on an underwater practice spacewalk Wednesday.

Working in water simulates conditions the astronauts face in orbit, allowing NASA engineers to refine repair procedures and develop a time line, which will then be relayed to the spacewalkers aboard the ISS.

Coolant Failure a "Planned For" Anomaly

The space station's troubles began last Saturday, when an electrical spike tripped a circuit breaker in a pump for the station's coolant loop A. The coolant loop circulates superchilled liquid ammonia through huge radiators aboard the U.S. segment of the ISS to dissipate heat generated by electronics.

The ammonia pump failure is significant, because cooling is one of the station's major systems, aka the "Big 14," space station program manager Mike Suffredini said in a press conference earlier this week.

"This is an anomaly we knew someday would happen," Suffredini said. "It's an anomaly we have trained for, it's an anomaly we have planned for."

(Related: "Space Station Evacuated Due to "Red" Debris Threat." [2009])

The station's six crew members—three U.S. astronauts and three Russian cosmonauts—are in no immediate danger, and a backup system, called coolant loop B, is functioning normally, said NASA spokesperson John Yembrick.

"All critical systems are functioning," Yembrick told National Geographic News. Some extra cables are now running through the inside of the station to connect electronics to coolant loop B, "but other than that, it's pretty much business as usual."

Worst Case: Move to Russian Segment of ISS

In the very unlikely event that coolant loop B fails before coolant loop A can be replaced, the station's crew will have to cloister in the Russian segment of the ISS, which has its own cooling system.

"That's a worst-case scenario, but this should all be behind us after [Wednesday's] spacewalk and the second pump is installed," Yembrick said.

(Related: "Space Station Escape Options Include Shuttle, Pod.")

The shutdown of coolant loop A forced the space station crew to quickly power down a variety of critical systems to prevent overheating and to move biological research samples between freezers.

"The crew transferred all the samples into the other freezer, so none of that science was lost," said NASA spokesperson Kelly Humphries.

In some ways, the cooling system failure couldn't have happened at a better time, mission managers noted.

NASA already had a spacewalk planned for Thursday to perform some external modifications to the station, so preparations were underway, spacewalk flight director Courtenay McMillan told reporters earlier this week.

"For Big 14 failures, in general, we typically allow for about two weeks to prepare," McMillan said.

"Since we already had [a spacewalk] coming up, we decided to take advantage of the fact that the crew already has the airlock and all the suit systems all ready to go—but this is a very aggressive time line for us."

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