‘I Didn’t Think He Would Drown’: Spacewalking Crewmember on Spacesuit Leak

Safely back on Earth on Sept. 10, astronaut Chris Cassidy happily chatters about his daily trips to the gym — “I feel real solid with my walking”, he says — and cracks one-liners during one of a series of media interviews on Thursday.

“It was such a treat being up there with [Chris] Hadfield, and I think I need to get credit for filming some of those videos,” joked Cassidy in a phone interview from Houston with Universe Today. His favorite video with Canada’s Expedition 35 commander? A remake of David Bowie’s Space Oddity that got props from Bowie himself.

Cassidy’s half-year voyage in space was full of these light moments, such as his decision to shave his head in homage to his bald crewmate, Luca Parmitano, who arrived on the International Space Station as a part of Expedition 36 on May 29. Weeks later, however, the men’s mood turned serious during a July 16 spacewalk; Parmitano reported water pooling at the back of his head.

“I was watching out when we were face to face outside,” Cassidy said. “Once it got onto his eyebrow hair area, it whipped across the top of his forehead and then sort of slid around his eyeballs. It migrates from hair to hair, and the little wispy hairs around your eyes, kind of, and then it travelled towards his eyelids and eyelashes. That was the scary part.”

Cassidy is a former Navy SEAL who passed, first try, the grueling “hell week” all recruits go through. In 5.5 days, SEAL trainees get just four hours of rack time while having to move for up to 200 miles. A veteran of shuttle mission STS-127, Cassidy also accumulated more than 18 hours of spacewalking experience across three excursions. All of his knowledge was brought to bear as he watched the water travelling across Parmitano’s head.

Luca Parmitano during a a spacewalk on July 16, 2013. An hour into the spacewalk, he reported water in his helmet and NASA cut the spacewalk short. Credit: NASA
Luca Parmitano during a a spacewalk on July 16, 2013. An hour into the spacewalk, he reported water in his helmet and NASA cut the spacewalk short. Credit: NASA

“From my experience in the military, I know bad things don’t get better fast, but they get worse fast. I wanted to get as quickly to the airlock as we could,” Cassidy said. NASA prudently ended the spacewalk and told Parmitano to head back to the hatch. Cassidy quickly did a cleanup at the work site and followed Parmitano.

“When we left each other at the work site and we had to go our separate ways back, at first I wasn’t too concerned,” Cassidy said. “And then when we left each other, the sun set. It was dark. His comm was going in and out and I could tell from his voice he was getting less and less comfortable … He didn’t have a whole lot of EVA experience, and it was nighttime, which is significant. It was pitch dark. You just have to know your way back, and he couldn’t see that well.”

Back in the hatch, Cassidy and Parmitano communicated through hand squeezes as the water was soaking Parmitano’s communications system. Cassidy carefully watched Parmitano’s mouth to see if the water was getting near there.

“I didn’t think he would drown, to be honest … but if it got close to his mouth I was going to immediately open the valve that equalizes pressure [inside the hatch.]” Cassidy added that usually, NASA goes slow during repressurization for ear safety and some technical reasons, but in this case he was prepared to flood the compartment if necessary. But it wasn’t. The rest of the crew then opened the hatch and got Parmitano out of his spacesuit as quickly as they could.

ISS Astronauts had to scramble to get Luca Parmitano out of his spacesuit after water leaked inside the suit, covering his face. Via NASA TV.
ISS Astronauts had to scramble to get Luca Parmitano out of his spacesuit after water leaked inside the suit, covering his face. Via NASA TV.

“Just from a human interest point of view, it was a lot of water,” Cassidy said. “When you try to describe an amount of water it’s difficult to put it in terms that people get it. But it was definitely more than a softball or two softballs of water inside the helmet.”

You can read Parmitano’s blogged account of the spacewalk here. The astronaut is currently unavailable for interviews while he is in orbit, the European Space Agency told Universe Today. NASA is still investigating the cause — the agency, in fact, also has a parallel investigation to look at spacewalk safety procedures in general. Cassidy attempted to change a filter and do other repairs in orbit, but the leak still happened, as these videos show. More detailed analysis will happen when the spacesuit goes back to Earth on a future SpaceX Dragon cargo flight, Cassidy said.

Cassidy also performed an emergency spacewalk in May when a coolant leak was discovered on the station itself as Hadfield’s Expedition 35 crew was set to return home. In just days — a typical spacewalk takes at least months to plan — NASA swiftly implemented a successful fix. Cassidy said his work was the easiest bit of all. “All I had to do was go out there and change the pump,” he said.

Despite the mishaps, however, science productivity on the station has reached a high when compared to maintenance activities. Expedition 35 reportedly had the most productive science mission to date, and Cassidy said Expedition 36 will likely show similar results. “We had a real nice successful six month stretch there where things were just working, and that allowed us to do a lot of science,” Cassidy said. One experiment involved playing with rovers.

The K10 Black planetary rover during a Surface Telerobotics Operational Readiness Test at NASA's Ames Research Center. Credit: NASA/Dominic Hart
The K10 Black planetary rover during a Surface Telerobotics Operational Readiness Test at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
Credit: NASA/Dominic Hart

Cassidy, Parmitano and Karen Nyberg each took turns operating the K10 rover prototype, a NASA Ames Research Center project. The goal is to simulate how astronauts could control a rover on an asteroid, the moon or Mars rather than heading down to the surface themselves.

“That was really cool to know we were on the space station, flying around the planet, with this actual real thing in California moving around,” Cassidy said. “It was more testing of what user interfaces are most intuitive and most useful for this kind of application … and in my opinion they pretty much nailed it, it was so intuitive.”

Now back on Earth, Cassidy said he generally feels great from a health perspective. His first set of exercises came about an hour after landing. He was carried into a medical tent and asked to do a quick series: sit in a chair and then stand up for 10 seconds. Lie on the ground for about a minute, then try standing for three minutes.

“My legs got wobbly for fatigue. They weren’t used to holding that weight,” Cassidy said, but observed that he readjusted to Earth’s gravity quickly during his first day back, which was mainly spent flying from Kazakhstan back to Houston.

The new in-the-field experiments will be the first of a dataset on astronaut health, meant to provide more information ahead of the first one-year trip to the International Space Station.

Space Station Expedition 36 Crew Returns to Earth Safely

The Expedition 36 crew from the International Space Station have landed safely, touching down in their Soyuz TMA-08M spacecraft in Kazakhstan at 02:38 UTC on September 11 (10:58 p.m. EDT Sept. 10). This great overhead image by NASA photographer Bill Ingalls shows the Soyuz’s thrusters firing just before it slams into the ground, ending up on its side. On board were Commander Pavel Vinogradov and Flight Engineer Alexander Misurkin of the Russian Federal Space Agency and NASA Flight Engineer Chris Cassidy. Vinigradov, age 60, is the oldest person to make the jarring landing in the venerable Soyuz craft.

You can see undocking and landing videos below:

The three completed 166 days in space since launching in late March. Remaining on the ISS are ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, now comprising Expedition 37. They will be joined by the Oleg Kotov, Sergei Ryazansky and Michael Hopkins, set to launch on September 25.

Astronaut Luca Parmitano’s Chilling First-Hand Account of His Mishap in Space

On July 16, Expedition 36 astronauts Chris Cassidy and Luca Parmitano had to cut a planned 7-hour spacewalk short after only an hour and a half due to a malfunction in Parmitano’s space suit, leaking water into his helmet and eventually cutting off his vision, hearing, and communications. Fortunately the Italian test pilot was able to safely return inside the ISS, but for several minutes he was faced with a pretty frightening situation: stuck outside Space Station with his head in a fishbowl that was rapidly filling with water.

On August 20, he shared his personal account of the event on his ESA blog.

“The only idea I can think of is to open the safety valve by my left ear: if I create controlled depressurisation, I should manage to let out some of the water, at least until it freezes through sublimation, which would stop the flow. But making a ‘hole’ in my spacesuit really would be a last resort…”

Parmitano’s description of his suit mishap begins as I’m sure all spacewalks do: with a sense of energy and enthusiasm for a job about to be performed in a challenging yet exotic and undeniably privileged location.

“My eyes are closed as I listen to Chris counting down the atmospheric pressure inside the airlock – it’s close to zero now. But I’m not tired – quite the reverse! I feel fully charged, as if electricity and not blood were running through my veins. I just want to make sure I experience and remember everything. I’m mentally preparing myself to open the door because I will be the first to exit the Station this time round. Maybe it’s just as well that it’s night time: at least there won’t be anything to distract me.”

But even though the EVA initially progressed as planned — ahead of schedule, in fact — it soon became obvious to Parmitano that something was amiss with his suit.

“The unexpected sensation of water at the back of my neck surprises me – and I’m in a place where I’d rather not be surprised. I move my head from side to side, confirming my first impression, and with superhuman effort I force myself to inform Houston of what I can feel, knowing that it could signal the end of this EVA.”

Luca Parmitano on EVA on July 16, 2013. (ESA)
Luca Parmitano on EVA on July 16, 2013. (ESA)

It didn’t take long before an uncomfortable situation escalated into something potentially very dangerous.

“As I move back along my route towards the airlock, I become more and more certain that the water is increasing. I feel it covering the sponge on my earphones and I wonder whether I’ll lose audio contact. The water has also almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision. I realise that to get over one of the antennae on my route I will have to move my body into a vertical position, also in order for my safety cable to rewind normally. At that moment, as I turn ‘upside-down’, two things happen: the Sun sets, and my ability to see – already compromised by the water – completely vanishes, making my eyes useless; but worse than that, the water covers my nose – a really awful sensation that I make worse by my vain attempts to move the water by shaking my head. By now, the upper part of the helmet is full of water and I can’t even be sure that the next time I breathe I will fill my lungs with air and not liquid. To make matters worse, I realise that I can’t even understand which direction I should head in to get back to the airlock. I can’t see more than a few centimetres in front of me, not even enough to make out the handles we use to move around the Station.”

After contemplating opening a hole in his helmet to let out some of the water — a “last resort,” indeed — Parmitano managed to get back inside the airlock with help from Cassidy. But he still had to deal with the process of repressurization, which itself takes a few minutes.

Read more: Space Water Leak Prompts NASA Mishap Investigation

“I try to move as little as possible to avoid moving the water inside my helmet. I keep giving information on my health, saying that I’m ok and that repressurization can continue. Now that we are repressurizing, I know that if the water does overwhelm me I can always open the helmet. I’ll probably lose consciousness, but in any case that would be better than drowning inside the helmet.”

Now, a month after the mishap, Parmitano reflects on the nature of the event and of space travel in general.

“Space is a harsh, inhospitable frontier and we are explorers, not colonisers. The skills of our engineers and the technology surrounding us make things appear simple when they are not, and perhaps we forget this sometimes.”

“Better not to forget,” he advises.

Read Luca’s full blog post on the ESA site here.

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano is the first of ESA’s new generation of astronauts to fly into space. Luca will serve as flight engineer on the Station for Expeditions 36 and 37. He qualified as a European astronaut and was proposed by Italy’s ASI space agency for this mission.

How Did That Spacesuit Water Leak Spread? New Video Has Clues

As NASA investigates how astronaut Luca Parmitano’s spacesuit filled with water during a spacewalk two weeks ago, a new video by fellow Expedition 36 astronaut Chris Cassidy demonstrated the path the pool took inside Parmitano’s helmet.

Cassidy described the situation as leaking “cooling water” that got “somehow into his ventilation system” and spread into Parmitano’s helmet. The cause is still being investigated.

From a ventilation port at the back of the helmet, “the water bubbles started to build up behind this white plastic piece,” Cassidy said in the video, pointing at a support that was behind Parmitano’s head.

Update: There’s now part 2 of Cassidy’s description of the leak, below:


“Once the water got big enough that it went all the way around and started coming outside the edge of the white plastic, then it saturated his communication cap and the … flow brought the water all around his head. And he had water filled up in his ear hubs, and it started to creep into his eyes, and cover his nose.”

Calling it a “scary situation”, Cassidy said that if the leak had continued, “it would have been very serious.” NASA, however, aborted the spacewalk quickly after Parmitano reported the problem. Parmitano and Cassidy, who were outside together, were back in the International Space Station in minutes.

Parmitano, for his part, has repeatedly said that he is doing all right. “Guys, I am doing fine and thanks for all the support. I am really okay and ready to move on,” he said, as reported in a July 18 ESA blog post.

NASA has at least two probes going on: an engineering analysis to find the cause, and a more wide-ranging mishap investigation to look at spacewalk procedures and overall crew safety during spaceflights. The agency also sent a spacesuit repair kit on the Progress spacecraft that docked with the International Space Station on July 27.

The July 16 spacewalk ended after just 1 hour, 32 minutes. All of the tasks for the planned 6.5-hour outing, which included preparing data cables and power for a forthcoming Russian module, are not urgent and can be done any time, NASA said. Further American spacewalks are suspended for the time being.

Alan Parson’s Project Dedicates Song to ISS Astronaut Parmitano

When we heard that the Alan Parsons Project song “Eye in the Sky” was beamed to humanity’s constant eye in the sky — the International Space Station — we just about exploded with space geekiness. It’s even more awesome that the video accompanying the song has tons of space scenes to enjoy.

Turns out the band’s song is Expedition 36 astronaut Luca Parmitano’s favorite, which is why Parsons dedicated that to him during a July 23 Alan Parsons Live Project concert at the Foro Italico in Rome.

Continue reading “Alan Parson’s Project Dedicates Song to ISS Astronaut Parmitano”

Doctor Who? Astronauts Need To Figure Out Medical Procedures Before Leaving Earth

Should an astronaut get sick on the International Space Station, that could be a bad scene given the nearest hospital requires a spaceship ride. That’s why every crew has at least two medical officers on board that can deal with some routine procedures, getting to items as complex as filling teeth, for example.

How to get that training done?

Here’s an example: above is Alexander Gerst, an astronaut with the European Space Agency, recently working with a mannequin at the Uniklinik Köln, a hospital in Cologne, Germany. The mannequin is at least as realistic as some baby dolls you can buy in stores: “it blinks, breathes and responds to injections”, ESA stated.

That’s in addition to three days Gerst spent in operating theatres, emergency and the intensive care unit at the hospital. He has about another year to do medical training before going to station for Expedition 40/41 in May 2014.

Chris Cassidy, an Expedition 36 flight engineer, tests his eyesight aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
Chris Cassidy, an Expedition 36 flight engineer, tests his eyesight aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Mind you, help is also a phone call away to a ground control station, who has doctors on site. Also, there are a lot of medical doctors or similarly trained personnel that fly in space.

On board the International Space Station right now is a trained Navy SEAL, for example: Chris Cassidy. He would have been trained to treat injuries during combat. In May, he told Universe Today that he expects “muscle memory” would kick in during an emergency, whether medical or station-related:

“I think just the training that I got in the field, training in the early part of my Navy career, and during my time being an astronaut will all combine together,” he said.

“What I know from combat in the Navy, there’s a sort of calmness that comes over people who are well-trained and know what to do. Muscle memory kicks in, and it’s not until after the thing is over that you realize what you went through.”

While those who fly in space train for medical emergencies, they also serve as medical guinea pigs for ongoing experiments. Turns out microgravity simulates aging processes on Earth, so the research could have benefits on the ground in future decades. Here’s a couple of experiments happening right now on station:

  • Space Headaches: “Current, pre, in-flight and post-flight data via questionnaires to evaluate the prevalence and characteristics of crewmembers’ headaches in microgravity.”
  • Reaction Self Test:  “A portable 5-minute reaction time task that will allow the crewmembers to monitor the daily effects of fatigue on performance while on board the International Space Station.”

Looking at the medical aspect alone, it’s abundantly clear why astronauts spend years in training before flying to the station. Remember, though, this is on top of other science experiments they do there, not to mention repairs, maintenance and the occasional spacewalk or catching a supply spacecraft.

How to Make Your New Space Roomate Feel at Home: Shave Your Head

International Space Station astronaut Chris Cassidy surprised the new crew arriving at the station earlier today, welcoming them aboard with a new look: he shaved his head to match his new crewmate, Luca Parmitano, who always sports a bald noggin. You can watch the video below to see Parmitano’s reaction.

During a televised video conference with family after the crew came aboard, Parmitano said Cassidy looked awesome.

Parmitano, Russian Fyodor Yurchikhin, and NASA’s Karen Nyberg docked their Soyuz to the station’s Rassvet module at 02:16 UTC on May 29 (10:16 p.m. EDT on May 28).

During the video conference, Nyberg’s husband and fellow astronaut Doug Hurley said the crew looked good, but “there are way too many bald guys on space station right now. Have a great time up there.”

Now with a full crew compliment of six, Expedition 36 will operate full throttle the next five and a half months, and perform up to six spacewalks, and welcome four cargo ships, including the exciting maiden visit of the Cygnus commercial cargo craft built by Orbital Sciences Corporation (tentatively scheduled for sometime in June), as well as ESA’s “Albert Einstein” Automated Transfer Vehicle-4 in June, a Russian Progress cargo craft in July and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s H-II Transfer Vehicle-4 in August.

Five of the spacewalks will prepare for the installation of the Russian Multipurpose Laboratory Module in December, and a spacewalk scheduled for November 9, 2013 will bring an Olympic torch outside the ISS.

Among the scientific research the crew has on tap are the Hip Quantitative Computed Tomography (QCT) experiment, which will evaluate countermeasures to prevent the loss of bone density seen during long-duration space missions. The experiment, which uses 3-D analysis to collect detailed information on the quality of astronauts’ hip bones, also will increase understanding of osteoporosis on Earth.

The station’s crew will continue research into how plants grow, leading to more efficient crops on Earth and improving understanding of how future crews could grow their own food in space. The crew also will test a new portable gas monitor designed to help analyze the environment inside the spacecraft and continue fuel and combustion experiments that past crews have undertaken. Studying how fire behaves in space will have a direct impact on future spaceflight and could lead to cleaner, more efficient combustion engines on Earth.

The trio of Cassidy, Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin will return to Earth aboard their Soyuz TMA-08M spacecraft in September. Their departure will mark the beginning of Expedition 37 under the command of Yurchikhin, who along with crewmates Nyberg and Parmitano will maintain the station as a three-person crew until the arrival of three additional flight engineers in late September. Yurchikhin, Nyberg and Parmitano are scheduled to return to Earth in November.

Why An Astronaut Asked 15 Year Old Abby to Help Get The Word Out

It seems an unlikely scenario: a teenager from Minnesota helping Italy’s next astronaut talk to the public about spaceflight. But for Luca Parmitano, who has mentored Abigail “Abby” Harrison for two years, it’s a way to reach out to a young audience. For Abby, it brings her closer to her dream of becoming an astronaut herself.

Parmitano does have the official outreach team available through the Italian Space Agency (which is part of the European Space Agency) and NASA, he acknowledged. Official mission reports will proceed as usual through those agencies’ press releases and social media accounts.

He’s pursuing this partnership with Abby, however, to have an additional “channel” targeted directly at children and teenagers, Parmitano told Universe Today:

It’s very simple. I thought one of the most important things that I can do in my job is talking to young people, youngsters, and try to inspire them try to guide them towards choosing a career path that goes towards science, technology, exploration of all sorts.

My message is to try to find something that you like, and to pursue it, and don’t wait for things to happe, but make it happen yourself. At one point, talking to Abby — this fantastic young girl who is so enthusiastic — I thought maybe she would be much better at communicating with kids than I could. I’m 36 years old. Maybe I don’t realize it, but I may be disconnected from the age group.

Parmitano is no social media pushover himself, though. The first-time flyer has a “landing page” website at LucaParmitano.com giving one-stop shopping for his Twitter, Facebook and Google pages. And just last week, he did a Google+ hangout with his protégé. (You can watch the whole thing below.)

Abby, at the tender age of 15, has amassed qualifications of her own. The Minnesota teenager is a Space Camp alumnus. She’s planning to learn Russian — an important language for the space program — and is already taking lessons in Mandarin. Her Twitter account has about 6,500 followers. And she’s raising money on Rockethub to see Parmitano’s launch in Kazakhstan next month and do outreach afterwards. With 19 days left, Abby’s approaching half of her $35,000 goal.

The aspiring Mars astronaut has a huge list of activities planned during Parmitano’s mission. She’ll share daily updates from the astronaut on her blog (AstronautAbby.com) and various social media profiles. She proposes an “Ask Luca” series where readers will be able to send questions to the Italian astronaut.

There also will be articles to write, Skype classroom chats to do, and a conference tour — including the International Mars Society Convention in August. Besides the social media updates, Abby is in the midst of booking appearances at conferences and scheduling chats with classrooms. There are more than 20 schools who have signed up for her to be a speaker, either in-person or by Skype.

“That is great, because I won’t be able to be there,” Parmitano said with a laugh.

It was two chance connections that brought him together with Abby. In 2011, Abby and her mother flew to Florida to see the penultimate launch of the space shuttle, mission STS-134. Abby’s mother, Nicole, briefly talked to Parmitano at a tweetup. Then Abby herself met Parmitano at the airport while waiting for the flight home.

Abigail Harrison, who calls herself "Astronaut Abby", will give updates from Luca Parmitano's mission. Credit: Abigail Harrison/Nicole Harrison
Abigail Harrison, who calls herself “Astronaut Abby”, will give updates from Luca Parmitano’s mission. Credit: Abigail Harrison/Nicole Harrison

The teenager and astronaut, who both had space dreams from young childhood, made a professional connection. Parmitano agreed to be Abby’s mentor. The two kept in touch in the years following, then Abby proposed her outreach program to compliment ESA’s activities.

“The main difference [over ESA’s outreach] is when it’s my program, it’s kid to kid. I’m trying to show that by working hard, you can do great things, and I’m an example of that,” Harrison said. “As an aspiring astronaut, you can meet amazing people and have amazing experiences.”

As a rookie, Parmitano said he is looking forward to the experiences his first spaceflight will bring, no matter who is watching. He joked that Italy does not really pay attention to him as an astronaut — the media flock to Samantha Cristoforetti, Italy’s first female astronaut, who is expected to reach station on Expedition 42/43.

“From Day 1, since we were selected, every news magazine went crazy for the female astronaut — and by the way, there’s another guy. I started introducing myself as ‘the other guy.’ ”

But the mission is still a notable one for Italy. Parmitano is the first assigned to a flight from the European Space Agency’s latest class of six astronauts, who call themselves The Shenanigans. The Italian Space Agency got this chance due to a substantial hardware contribution to the station program: a modified multipurpose logistics module (Leonardo) that was adapted for use as a laboratory on station. It and two other MPLMs (Raffaello and Donatello) ferried cargo on shuttle flights to use on station, too.

Parmitano will perform the first Italian spacewalk — two of them are planned, in fact. He and crewmate Chris Cassidy (a former Navy SEAL who spoke with Universe Today last month) are scheduled to go outside in July to swap out experiments, put up a blanket to shield part of the station from space exposure, and install new orbital replacement units to upgrade certain ISS functions.

Expedition 35/36 astronaut Luca Parmitano will perform two spacewalks during his mission. Credit: NASA/Lauren Harnett
Expedition 36/37 astronaut Luca Parmitano will perform two spacewalks during his mission. Credit: NASA/Lauren Harnett

In between, of course, Parmitano has dozens of experiments to work through — contributions from various station partners ranging from Japan to Canada.

An Italian one he speaks of frequently involves him deliberately setting controlled fires on station. Called ICE-GA (Italian Combustion Experiment for Green Air), it’s intended to seek renewable fuels that are less polluting than what we use today. Results will be used for future space fuels, and also on the ground to reduce toxic emissions.

Despite his high-flying duties, Parmitano plays down any adulation from Abby.

“She’s a tremendous young lady, and she has enthusiasm to sell, and maturity way beyond her age,” he said. “It’s really an honor for me to be called her mentor. I learn from her more than she learned from me.”

As for how Abby plans to get to Mars, first she is figuring out what interests her to narrow down her university choices.

Abby, who is entering her junior year in high school next year, is conscious that time away from school is hard to do when starting to think about university applications. She’s working out alternative scheduling arrangements with her teachers and keeping them apprised of what could be a busy speaking schedule in the coming months.

She’s still mulling her options for university — perhaps the United States Air Force Academy, or maybe studying geology at the University of Colorado. Along the way, she’ll keep in contact with Parmitano.

“How important it is to work hard was really the main subject of our discussion [at the airport],” Abby said, “and how if you have a dream and you set a goal, you can achieve it with hard work.”