NASA’s Botched Helmet and the Astronaut who Kept it Cool

Astronaut_Edward_White_first_American_spacewalk_Gemini_4Tuesday saw the abortion of a NASA spacewalk due to water leakage in the helmet. The helmet is designed with a astronaut’s safety in mind, enabling the astronaut to breathe when outside earth’s atmosphere.

The spacewalk lasted less than two hours, officially beginning at 4:57 am (PST) and was brought to a premature end at 6:39 am.

With all the technology, resources and funds that have been plugged into NASA, it is a humbling experience to be at the whim of a water leak.

The exact cause of the leak is currently uncertain, however speculation is circulating that the cause could stem from the spacesuit’s cooling system.

Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano did not sustain any serious physical injuries, despite nearly choking. The water leak in his helmet rendered him unable to speak or hear. NASA astronaut Christopher Cassidy was Luca Parmitano’s partner and together they made it back to the safety of the space station.

The debacle was dramatic, with neither Houston-based flight controllers nor the astronauts sure of what would unfold. There was no magic button to save the day. Only the speed at which the astronauts raced back to the station, and the literal yanking off of the helmet saved Parmitano from the relatively ‘safe’ spacewalk. Of course the astronauts who embark on missions (some even more dangerous than this) go in with the understanding that it is not the most benign of occupations, they do, however, place a certain amount of faith in NASA’s governing mechanisms. Accidents do happen, but such an (as yet) unexplained incident under the control of the world’s best and most learned scientists, requires some answers.

It has been four decades since a spacewalker has become so debilitated. NASA’s Gemini program in the 1960’s saw the last such incident. Since then we have made innumerable discoveries in technology and science, yet Tuesday saw the banal mistake of a malfunctioning helmet.

NASA graciously announced their acknowledgement of the danger astronaut Parmitano was placed in, in the news conference that followed. Space operations manager Kenneth Todd informed the public that every possible angle would be examined until they find the cause(s) of the leakage in order to prevent it from occurring again.

Between 1 and 1.5 liters of water had leaked in his helmet and suit by the time he reached the safety of the station. He felt the water building up for a few minutes before being ordered to abort the mission and get back inside space station.

Although NASA has not officially identified the leak, it is however, suspected that the source leak came from the water that is piped through the cooling underwear worn under the spacesuit.

Training does appear to be paying off as Parmitano’s calm manner contributed to his safety. This is an element to the event that should be highlighted by NASA, for it was not a billion dollar technological devise that saved him from further peril, it was his calm manner and that of the astronauts waiting to assist him in the space station.

Jessica Rosslee

 

 

 

 

 

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