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The wrong stuff: junk in space station

With shuttle on hold, trash day never comes

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- There's no space in the space station.

So a few weeks ago, the two astronauts who live there tossed out some useless junk, like so many old hubcaps for the trash heap.

Only this stuff floated away in space.

And the throwing-away -- done during a recent spacewalk -- was done cautiously so that the discarded antenna covers and expired pump panel did not become deadly boomerangs.

Such is life in space, post-Columbia.

With no garbage pickup by shuttles for nearly two years, the International Space Station is more and more resembling a cluttered attic.

''Room limited" is how astronaut Mike Fincke describes it.

Shuttle deliveries and pickups will not resume until spring at the earliest. A barrage of hurricanes and their devastating blow to National Aeronautics and Space Administration's launch site have delayed the next shuttle flight, by Discovery, for at least a couple of months.

So trash will keep piling up.

''It's at the point where we have to figure out a way to handle it. You can't just wish it away. The garbage man isn't coming tomorrow to take everything away for you," said astronaut Kenneth Bowersox, who was the space station's skipper during the Columbia shuttle disaster.

Astronaut Michael Foale, another former space station commander, said that even more important than what Discovery brings on that first flight will be what it takes away.

''It's essential that when that first shuttle comes up, before they do anything, they start to clear out the items that we need to deliver back to Earth on the shuttle," Foale said.

The crowding slowed him down, Foale said, and began to affect his work during his six-month stay, which ended in April.

''It's limiting our efficiency maybe by a percent or two, as we have to move some items out of the way when we get to a panel behind it," he said. ''But we are nowhere near as critical as I thought we were on space station Mir."

NASA takes little comfort in the fact that the six-year-old space station isn't as dingy or messy as Russia's Mir, which tumbled from the sky in 2001 after 15 years of operation. The point, from the beginning, was to avoid a pigpen in orbit.

''We're in a constrained situation," said Suzan Voss, manager of the NASA cargo integration office. ''But it's still a safe situation."

Columbia's catastrophic plunge from the sky Feb. 1, 2003, grounded the shuttle fleet and halted all space station construction.

The Russian Space Agency has been sending capsules and supply ships to the station. The cargo carriers have provided backup stores of precious oxygen that have come in handy during the repeated breakdowns of the station's main oxygen generator. But the Russian spacecraft can hold, at most, only a third of what the shuttle can carry.

Little can be returned to Earth in the capsules besides the astronauts themselves, and the cargo ships are cut loose and incinerated in the atmosphere. So only trash goes into the carriers before undocking -- empty food containers, dirty clothes, aluminum toilet cartridges full of solid waste.

During the Mir years, cosmonauts routinely dumped trash overboard in bags. International accords now frown on that because the objects could become dangerous pieces of space junk.

The Russians made sure that would not happen during the spacewalk in September. The discarded antenna covers already have fallen harmlessly out of orbit, for instance, and the pump panel should plunge through the atmosphere in flames by year's end.

''Now if we were just desperate, that might be something that was done," Bowersox said, referring to large-scale dumping.

''But we're not near that."

Among the bigger items taking up space on the station until shuttles soar again: racks holding science experiments; broken exercise equipment and other machines; worn-out spacewalking suits; and more than a dozen rendezvous and docking devices in need of an engineering face-lift by the Russian Space Agency, which no longer can afford to make or buy new parts.

Among the smaller items: undeveloped rolls of IMAX film, tucked between water bags to protect against radiation, and astronauts' personal belongings, like Bowersox's shirts with his crew insignia and the ugly slime-colored tie he wore when he needed cheering up.

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