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.

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