What to Do When Your Space Helmet Fills With Water

How NASA narrowly averted a tragedy.

An astronaut's worst nightmare.
National Journal
Alex Brown
Feb. 28, 2014, 10:29 a.m.

This week’s NASA re­port on a near-fatal space­walk reads like something out of your worst night­mare.

Itali­an as­tro­naut Luca Par­m­it­ano spent nearly an hour float­ing in space as his hel­met slowly filled with wa­ter — up to 1.5 liters — en­gulf­ing his eyes, nose and ears. And while his Ju­ly 16 space­walk ended safely, NASA now ac­know­ledges the mis­hap could have killed him.

“[Par­m­it­ano] ex­per­i­enced a large amount of wa­ter col­lect­ing in­side his hel­met which cre­ated sev­er­al haz­ard­ous con­di­tions in­clud­ing risk of as­phyxi­ation, im­paired vis­ion, and a com­prom­ised abil­ity to com­mu­nic­ate,” the re­port states. “The pres­ence of this wa­ter cre­ated a con­di­tion that was life threat­en­ing.”

As the wa­ter col­lec­ted, Par­m­it­ano’s con­cerns were ini­tially dis­missed. The re­port says crew mem­bers were un­der the mis­per­cep­tion that as­tro­nauts’ drink bags leaked fre­quently, and re­acted as if the col­lect­ing wa­ter was due to that less-ser­i­ous prob­lem.

In a 16-minute span, however, Par­m­it­ano said three times he did not be­lieve the wa­ter was com­ing from the drink bag. Only after he drank the bag’s re­main­ing wa­ter did the team con­sider oth­er pos­sib­il­it­ies. A fel­low as­tro­naut sur­mised ur­ine or sweat may be to blame.

Mean­while, his hel­met was still filling up. An­oth­er mis­per­cep­tion — that wa­ter in zero-grav­ity would cling to the in­side of the hel­met and not an as­tro­naut’s face — led crew mem­bers to un­der­es­tim­ate the prob­lem.

Twenty-four minutes after his first re­port of the prob­lem, Par­m­it­ano’s space­walk was ter­min­ated. It would be an­oth­er 33 minutes be­fore his hel­met would come off.

As he made his way back to the air­lock, gath­er­ing wa­ter covered his eyes, for­cing him to blindly feel his way to­ward the sta­tion. The crew in­side and back on the ground were still un­aware of how ser­i­ous the situ­ation was, be­cause Par­m­it­ano’s soaked com­mu­nic­a­tions cap was not re­lay­ing his calls — leav­ing him “in the blind.”

One hour and 35 minutes after the start of his space­walk, Par­m­it­ano — fi­nally in the air­lock — re­moved his hel­met. While most of us are hav­ing a pan­ic at­tack just read­ing about his or­deal, the Itali­an’s “calm de­mean­or in the face of his hel­met filling with wa­ter pos­sibly saved his life,” says the re­port.

NASA’s 222-page doc­u­ment also cred­its the flight con­trol team for mak­ing the cor­rect calls in an un­pre­ced­en­ted situ­ation, ul­ti­mately sav­ing Par­m­it­ano’s life.

So what caused the near-fatal ac­ci­dent? Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, a blocked wa­ter sep­ar­at­or in the suit caused the li­quid to spill over and find its way in­to the as­tro­naut’s hel­met.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4769) }}

What We're Following See More »
THE QUESTION
How Many Jobs Would Be Lost Under Bernie Sanders’s Single-Payer System?
4 hours ago
THE ANSWER

More than 11 million, according to Manhattan Institute fellow Yevgeniy Feyman, writing in RealClearPolicy.

Source:
WEEKEND DATA DUMP
State to Release 550 More Clinton Emails on Saturday
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

Under pressure from a judge, the State Department will release about 550 of Hillary Clinton’s emails—“roughly 14 percent of the 3,700 remaining Clinton emails—on Saturday, in the middle of the Presidents Day holiday weekend.” All of the emails were supposed to have been released last month. Related: State subpoenaed the Clinton Foundation last year, which brings the total number of current Clinton investigations to four, says the Daily Caller.

Source:
LATER TO THIS YEAR’S NADER
Jim Webb Rules Out Independent Bid
5 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

UPDATED: Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) will not be playing the role of Ralph Nader in this year’s election. Speaking in Dallas today, Webb said, “We looked at the possibility of an independent candidacy. Theoretically, it could be done, but it is enormously costly and time sensitive, and I don’t see the fundraising trajectory where we could make a realistic run.”

Source:
HE’D SIPHON OFF DEM VOTES
RNC Chief Would Welcome Bloomberg
5 hours ago
THE DETAILS

“The lead­ers of the Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic na­tion­al com­mit­tees on Wed­nes­day weighed in on the pro­spect of an in­de­pend­ent pres­id­en­tial run by” former New York City May­or Mi­chael Bloomberg (I). “DNC Chair­wo­man Debbie Wasser­man Schultz sug­ges­ted that the former New York City may­or’s pri­or­it­ies are already ‘well cared-for’ in the Demo­crat­ic plat­form, while RNC lead­er Re­ince Priebus wel­comed the idea, say­ing Bloomberg would si­phon off votes from the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate.”

Source:
THE QUESTION
How Large Is Hillary Clinton’s Delegate Lead?
6 hours ago
THE ANSWER

Three hundred fifty-two, thanks to superdelegates pledged to Clinton, and the vagaries of the delegate allocation process in early states. Not bad, considering her results have been a virtual tie and a blowout loss.

Source:
×