Astronaut Describes Terrifying Spacesuit Problem That Cut Short a Spacewalk

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July 30 2013 1:36 PM

Astronaut Describes Terrifying Spacesuit Problem That Cut Short a Spacewalk

Chris Cassidy and a spacesuit helmet
Astronaut Chris Cassidy points to a ventilation port in the spacesuit helmet that leaked water into Luca Parmitano's spacesuit, cutting short an EVA in July.

Photo by NASA

On July 16, astronaut Luca Parmitano was doing an extravehicular activity—a spacewalk—outside the International Space Station when a spacesuit malfunction cut the EVA short. Somehow, water used to cool the suit leaked into his air ventilation system, causing his helmet to start filling with water.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Parmitano was brought back inside safely, and NASA engineers are still investigating what happened. Fellow crewmember Chris Cassidy made a short video describing the incident, showing us the helmet and what happened:

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Holy yikes, that’s scary. I’m glad Parmitano is OK, and I certainly hope they figure this out soon.

As bad as this was, it could’ve been a lot worse. Water behaves weirdly in space, where the force of gravity is almost negligible. Water collects into drops or balls because of the way the molecules attract each other, and it also sticks to surfaces where it can collect. Cassidy talks about how the water pooled on the curved plate behind Parmitano’s head. I’m guessing that as Parmitano moved his head around, the big blob of water broke up a bit, sending droplets around the helmet. He could have easily breathed those in, where he could’ve been sent into a coughing fit or even started choking.

This didn’t happen—it was caught in time, with Parmitano and NASA engineers acting as the seasoned professionals they are—which is good news, but it’s a stark reminder that space travel is still difficult and dangerous. If it were easy, we’d have colonies on Mars by now. And even though, sometimes, NASA, the ESA, and other space agencies make it look easy, that’s because of those trained professionals who dedicate their lives to it. But space travel is hard, it’s expensive, and it will never be entirely safe.

But I still maintain it’s something we must do. Exploration is in our genes, and I argue it’s part of what makes us human. It also can have huge payoffs, including material wealth as well as saving our species. Given that, the risk is worth it, when proper precautions are taken. Ask any astronaut, and I will guarantee they’ll agree.

Tip o' the gold visor to Geoff Brumfiel and Ian O'Neill.

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