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NASA astronauts dropped an important part during spacewalk, and now it’s gone forever

Published Mar 31st, 2017 4:28PM EDT
iss spacewalk
Image: NASA

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When you’re replacing the air filter or swapping the battery in your car and drop a tool it’s a pretty frustrating feeling. Where did it go? Did it fall all the way through or is it lodged somewhere in the maze of metal and hoses? Of course, eventually you’ll find what you dropped and move on with your life, but the same can’t be said for NASA astronauts working on the International Space Station. Two such astronauts — Commander Shane Kimbrough and Flight Engineer Peggy Whitson — experienced that reality first hand when one of four thermal shields they were supposed to install just kind of floated away. Oops.

The agency didn’t explain exactly how the part was lost or misplaced, but it’s been made abundantly clear that it is no longer on the space station. It’s either slowly tumbling towards Earth where it will burn up, or it’s headed out into the depths of space to start a journey of its very own. Here’s how NASA describes the rather strange accident:

The duo were also tasked with installing four thermal protection shields on the Tranquility module of the International Space Station. The shields were required to cover the port where the PMA-3 was removed earlier in the week and robotically installed on the Harmony module. During the spacewalk, one of the shields was inadvertently lost. The loss posed no immediate danger to the astronauts and Kimbrough and Whitson went on to successfully install the remaining shields on the common berthing mechanism port.

It’s an unfortunate event, especially considering there were no spare shields to use in place of the lost part. Thankfully, a part that was recently removed from another part of the space station was able to be used as a stand-in for the real shield, and apparently provide adequate enough thermal and micrometeoroid protection that there’s no cause for alarm.