The POT has announced that it will suspend non-emergency spacewalks aboard the International Space Station (ISS) while investigating what caused water to leak into an astronaut’s helmet during a walk in March.
“Until we better understand what the causal factors might have been during the last [caminata espacial] with us [trajes espaciales]we are not going to [caminatas espaciales] nominal,” Dana Weigel, deputy program manager for the ISS, said this week.
Weigel added that it was important for NASA to “address and rule out major system failure modes” regarding the recent incident.
The spacewalk in question, conducted by NASA astronaut Raja Chari and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer, took place outside the ISS on March 23. Once Maurer was back inside the station’s airlock at the end of the seven-hour excursion, it was discovered that water was collecting inside Maurer’s hull. An initial investigation revealed that up to 50% of the visor had been coated with water, with more found in an absorption pad on the back of his space helmet.
Maurer’s case was not considered an emergency situation at the time, but it had alarming echoes of a more serious and life-threatening episode on the space station in 2013. And for that reason, NASA is taking no chances.
It involved Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, who nearly drowned during a spacewalk when his helmet began to absorb water.
Parmitano later said that while working outside the station, water stains began to enter his nose, mouth and eyes, hindering his ability to clearly see his surroundings. But most worrying of all, the fluid buildup began to negatively affect his breathing.
Despite poor vision and breathing problems, Parmitano kept his cool and carefully made his way back to the airlock and safety. In his case, the problem was attributed to a contaminated fan pump inside the spacesuit.
Such incidents during spacewalks are mercifully rare, and to date no astronaut has been killed or seriously injured during the several hundred excursions off the station since it became operational more than two decades ago.