How Are Repairs Made in Outer Space

I love space travel, its history and progress. I want to know every little detail—not just about the people, but the science behind the process. I have dealt with spacesuits and toilets in the past. I have talked about astronaut food and what they do in their spare time. I got to thinking about repairs in space and had no idea that some could be remedied with simple welding.

You can do most anything in space as we have seen, even welding. The Russians were the first to try. Imagine that something goes wrong and you must attach a piece of metal to the hull of the spacecraft. Any repairs are challenging for astronauts, but welding! How you ask given the lack of atmosphere, temperature, and gravity. There is a way. This is the subject of today’s blog, so stay alert.

Anything can happen when the crew are out of the earth’s protective grip. The prospect of welding in a looming, freezing void is beyond reason—and ever so fascinating. On a Soviet mission on Soyuz 6, the astronauts tested the welding process first in a depressurized environment. You would think that the spacecraft could withstand the rigors of space travel given the materials like ceramic and aluminum. Even if it can it is no match for a Russian with an arc welder like the ones on this web site. One of the crew accidentally burned a hole in the side of the living compartment during the test almost hurtling them into open space.

After their tests, the Soyuz 6 crew found that welding was entirely possible off-planet; but it wasn’t easy with an electron beam gun. Things were tough and they didn’t know what to do with the spatter so NASA was reluctant to follow suit and recommend it for emergency repairs. Nonetheless, it had to admit its value. Great care is given to outfitting the spacecraft with a lightweight hand-held torch gun that can solder, weld, and cut when needed in with limited room within or outside in space.

It gets complicated when you think about the gases in zero gravity. Remember that it is an airless environment. What do you use as a power source? You can’t use a portable generator because it has to be air cooled. NASA had to create a new kind of variable power laser welder/torch for space application that doesn’t use gas. It is compact, effective, and easy to maneuver. As you can imagine, the laser allows the astronauts to operate the device with exacting precision.

Given what I have read, and the Russian horror story, why not prevent the repair problems in the first place. If NASA can build a sturdy ship to begin with, welding dangers can be avoided unless it is a dire emergency. As the decades roll by, I am amazed at what technology has done and how many problems have been solved. American ingenuity is indeed in action.