As Astronaut’s Helmet Filled With Water, He Told NASA 3 Times It Wasn’t From Drinking Bag

While NASA’s Mission Control “performed admirably” during a spacewalk water leak crisis in July, a report on the incident showed that controllers did not send astronaut Luca Parmitano back to the airlock until after he made three calls saying the water didn’t appear to be from a drinking bag.

There are several reasons this happened, the mishap report says, such as inadequate training, the crew members and ground misunderstanding the severity of the situation, and a (false) perception that any water leak is likely due to a problem with the drinking bag.

Another big problem was the “normalization of deviance”, similar language to what was used during in reports describing the Challenger and Columbia incidents. In this case, small amounts of water in the helmet was expected, and controllers also misunderstood the cause of a carbon dioxide alarm (a fairly regular occurrence during spacewalks).

The report pulls no punches when it describes how bad things were: “The presence of this water created a condition that was life threatening.”

While talking about what is in the report, it’s also important to point out what the investigators did not find. There was no evidence that contractors were afraid to bring up problems (such as what happened during the 1986 Challenger explosion), chair Chris Hanson told reporters yesterday. Also, while the suits are 35 years old, no aging problem was detected.

Another couple of cautions: the report is preliminary (the exact cause of the leak is under investigation), it’s lengthy (222 pages) and much of the technical information is unavailable to the public due to export control restrictions. Any news story will just scratch the surface of what happened and the recommendations to fix it.

That said, here are a few key points we found in the report.

European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano on a spacewalk July 9, 2013 during Expedition 36. Here, Parmitano is riding the end of the robotic Canadarm2. Credit: NASA
European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano on a spacewalk July 9, 2013 during Expedition 36. Here, Parmitano is riding the end of the robotic Canadarm2. Credit: NASA

Parmitano warned controllers multiple times.  The transcript shows three separate calls from Parmitano saying it wasn’t the drinking bag at cause: (1) “I feel a lot of water on the back of my head, but I don’t think it is from my bag.” (2) “The leak is not from the water bag and it is increasing.” (3) “I’m thinking that it might not be the water bag.” (In between 1 and 2, he also sent another call saying his “only guess” was it was the drinking bag, but the report adds that Parmitano may have softened his stance after speaking to controllers). Misunderstanding about the severity, lack of training, “cognitive overload” of controllers, and space-to-ground-to-space communication difficulties are all cited as contributing factors.

Drink bags don’t actually leak as much as people think they did. Unequivocally, the mishap investigation board says “the perception that drink bags leak, especially as a frequent occurrence, is false.” There has never been an instance of a bag leaking substantially during a spacewalk, the report says. After the crisis passed and investigators had the luxury of time, they in fact identified seven separate possible sources of water: (1) the bag; (2) the waste collection garment; (3) cooling water from the sublimator heat rejection component of the suit; (4) the Liquid Cooling Ventilation Garment connector or the tubing itself; (5) transfer lines through the Hard Upper Torso; (6) water storage tankage through the pressurizing bladders; (7) the water separator circuit (which is where the problem was eventually found).

It was a risky decision to send Parmitano back alone. Twenty-three minutes after Parmitano warned of water in his helmet, NASA terminated the spacewalk and as per procedure, had the astronaut head to the airlock while crewmate Chris Cassidy performed cleanup tasks before doing the same. (“Terminate” has a specific meaning as opposed to “abort”, which means both crew members leave immediately.) By this time, water was in Parmitano’s eyes and the station had passed into the shadow of the Earth, forcing him to feel his way back to the airlock along the tether. (This was only his second spacewalk on station, too.) Also, the water affected his communications equipment, as he made several calls “in the blind” that were not heard. At this time, Cassidy and the ground controllers did not know how severe the situation was. “Additional risk exposure that the team could have considered was the aspiration of water, failure of comm equipment, and impaired visibility,” the report said.

European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano does spacesuit maintenance prior to July 9 and 16, 2013 spacewalks. Parmitano was a member of Expeditions 36 and 37. Credit: NASA
European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano does spacesuit maintenance prior to July 9 and 16, 2013 spacewalks. Parmitano was a member of Expeditions 36 and 37. Credit: NASA

The emphasis on science on station can hinder with maintenance tasks. NASA and other space station partners are eager to demonstrate how great the station is to science, but crew time is divided between that and doing maintenance tasks. “Due to this knowledge, team members felt that requesting on-orbit time for anything non-science related was likely to be denied and therefore tended to assume their next course of action could not include on-orbit time,” the report states. To give a specific example of how this affected Parmitano’s suit: After water was found in the suit during a previous spacewalk, the crew and ground essentially determined it was due to the drink bag and did not probe further, partly because of the perception that doing an investigation would take an inordinate amount of time for little return (as they believed they knew the cause). On a related note, there was also the concern that investigating this occurrence (which happened on July 9) would delay the July 16 spacewalk. (Again, this sounds a bit like Challenger, where time pressure was cited as a reason to launch despite icy conditions.)

More needs to be done to understand the physics of water in a spacesuit. A few examples: it was believed the fan would have failed if water got through the separator unit, which did not occur. It was also believed that any water in the helmet would cling to the helmet, and not the crew member’s face. Not only that, the training for crew and ground was inadequate to seek out water causes on the fly. “Had this been done, the crew and ground team may not have attributed water in the helmet to just the drink bag,” the report stated.

Water in the helmet was normalized. If you’ve read Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth, there’s an account in there about how Hadfield (who also was a junior spacewalker in 2001) became temporarily blind due to an anti-fog agent on the helmet getting into his eyes. This has happened during other spacewalks, too, which meant that the ground team was used to small amounts of water in the helmet — even though this wasn’t a normal condition. Another aspect: a carbon dioxide alarm went off in Parmitano’s suit after it became saturated with water. This happened six minutes before he felt the dampness. The team attributed this to “nominal accumulation of moisture in the vent loop,” which can happen at the end of the spacewalk. Having it happen less than an hour in, however, did not trigger a fault-finding process.

Water collecting inside of a spacesuit helmet. This was the lead image in a report investigating a July 2013 water leak in a spacesuit used by European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano. Credit: NASA
Water collecting inside of a spacesuit helmet. This was the lead image in a report investigating a July 2013 water leak in a spacesuit used by European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano. Credit: NASA

While there are many, many causes in the report (with aspects ranging from the technical to the procedural to the training), members identified three main ones to the incident: (1) inorganic materials in the water separator drum holes, for reasons still unknown (2) a lack of understanding that meant the team’s response took longer than usual (3) a misdiagnosis of the water found during the July 9, 2013 spacewalk.

There are 49 separate recommendations ranging from “Level 1” priority to “Level 3”, which are still important but less urgent. NASA has pledged it will clear all “Level 1” and “Level 2” items before doing any normal spacewalks, although contingency ones are still possible. They expect this to be finished by June, but say they will take as long as needed to get the investigation done. There are no pressing spacewalk tasks on station right now.

Looking to the long run, the report noted that there should be more backups available if a fault is found in the spacesuits, as NASA is relying on these devices to perform essential station maintenance as far as 2028. Also, the investigators say that the six-year certification of these suits for orbital tasks is likely inadequate, and calls for a review of that. So although aging was not identified as an issue, maintenance and backups of the spacesuits could be key features of NASA thinking in the months and years to come.

Spacesuit Leak: Why It Took NASA 23 Minutes To Send Astronaut To Safety

It took NASA almost the same amount of time as a sitcom episode to send Luca Parmitano back to the airlock when the Italian astronaut experienced a leak in his spacesuit last summer, a new report reveals.

The 23-minute gap of time between when Parmitano first sent a report of water in his helmet, to when NASA told him to go back to safety, exposed the astronaut “to an increased level of risk”, the report said. While Parmitano emerged from the incident safely, in his last minutes inside the spacesuit the water was covering his eyes, getting close to his nose and mouth, and affecting the communications equipment.

 

“There wasn’t an issue of anything being hidden or surprised. It was a lack of understanding about the severity of the event. It was believed a drink bag caused the leak,” said Chris Hansen, the chair of the mishap investigation board, in a press conference today (Feb. 26).

This misunderstanding, added Hansen (who is also the chief engineer of the International Space Station Program) also led to a problem when a leak occurred in the same suit just the week before.

Parmitano’s water leak occurred July 16 when he and Chris Cassidy were preparing a part of the International Space Station for a new Russian module. Until today, however, few knew about the existence of a second leak in the same spacesuit that happened on July 9, when Cassidy and Parmitano were doing another spacewalk together.

Astronaut Chris Cassidy works with Luca Parmitano's spacesuit, which had a water leak on July 16, 2013. Credit: NASA
Astronaut Chris Cassidy works with Luca Parmitano’s spacesuit, which had a water leak on July 16, 2013. Credit: NASA

After the conclusion of “EVA 22” on July 9, as NASA called the extra-vehicular activity, Parmitano took off his helmet and crew members discovered between 0.5 and 1 liters (0.13 to 0.26 gallons) of water inside. Cassidy told the ground that he could not see any water during the spacewalk or repressurization, leading NASA to conclude the water got into the helmet in the airlock.

“Also,” the report noted, “[Parmitano] was looking down and leaning forward and likely had pressed on the drink bag with his chest and could have pinched the bite valve open with his chin, releasing water into his helmet. The ground team accepted the crew’s drink bag leak assessment and the presence of excessive water in the helmet was not investigated further … The ground team instructed the crew to use a new drink bag for the upcoming EVA 23, which they did.”

Hanson emphasized that the crew did not make the final call, and that the ground team did ask some questions about what was going on, but the assumption that a drink bag caused the water was also a key feature of the July 16 spacewalk when the leak began to show itself in earnest.

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.

Also, NASA did not well understand the physics of how water worked inside of the suit, assuming there was no way for liquid to make it past a fan pump separator into the helmet unless the fan itself shut off. If that scenario arose, NASA would have kicked into a 30-minute return-to-airlock procedure, and that was in the back of controllers’ minds as they were working through the fault tree during the July 16 spacewalk, officials said in the phone call today.

In the short term, the authors of the report have several  “Level 1” or priority recommendations that they should be implemented before normal spacewalks resume. NASA said it’s planning to work through these and “Level 2” recommendations in time for June, with the aim of getting spacewalks going again in July or August.

NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins holds a spare ammonia pump module during a spacewalk Dec. 24, 2013. Hopkins and fellow Expedition 38 Rick Mastracchio (top) performed two spacewalks to replace a pump blamed for crippling one of the International Space Station's two cooling loops Dec. 11. Credit: NASA TV (screenshot)
NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins holds a spare ammonia pump module during a spacewalk Dec. 24, 2013. Hopkins and fellow Expedition 38 Rick Mastracchio (top) performed two spacewalks to replace a pump blamed for crippling one of the International Space Station’s two cooling loops Dec. 11. Credit: NASA TV (screenshot)

Emergency spacewalks can still go forward, as the agency has new safety measures in place (including snorkels). This happened in December as the astronauts replaced a faulty ammonia pump.

The agency has no pressing spacewalk tasks at this time. The broken pump, sitting in temporary stowage outside the station, was initially safed to stay there until summer, but further analysis shows that it could sit there for several months more.

You can read the entire 222-page report here. We’ll pull out more highlights tomorrow after we have some time to look over it in more detail, too. The exact cause of the leak is still under investigation.

NASA Weighs Spacewalk To Fix Cooling Problem On Station

NASA may allow its first spacewalk since summer to deal with a malfunction that crippled a cooling loop on the International Space Station.

If extravehicular activity is deemed necessary for a fix, it would be the first time NASA spacesuits were used “outside” since Luca Parmitano, an Italian astronaut, experienced a water leak in one that cut short a spacewalk in July. NASA suspended all spacewalks as a precaution while the cause was investigated.

Since then, the agency has put in place procedures to protect astronauts from it happening again, opening up a spacewalk or spacewalks as an option to deal with a balky control valve inside a pump on the station.

The valve is an essential part of an S1 (starboard) truss pump that helps maintain the correct temperature for space station electronics. Ammonia circulates through two external cooling loops and is put through radiators to bleed off heat. The valve is required to mix the cool and warm parts of liquid in the ammonia loop.

 Expedition 35 Flight Engineers Chris Cassidy (left) and Tom Marshburn completed a the 5-hour, 30-minute spacewalk on May 11 to inspect and replace a pump controller box on the International Space Station’s far port truss (P6) leaking ammonia coolant. Credit: NASA
Expedition 35 Flight Engineers Chris Cassidy (left) and Tom Marshburn completed a the 5-hour, 30-minute spacewalk on May 11 to inspect and replace a pump controller box on the International Space Station’s far port truss (P6) leaking ammonia coolant. Credit: NASA

A pump automatically shut down on Wednesday (Dec. 11) when the loop got too cold. As NASA began troubleshooting the issue, it powered down non-critical systems (including experiments and redundant systems) in the Columbus laboratory, Harmony node and Japanese Kibo laboratory. Primary systems are still online.

The astronauts are safe, NASA said today (Dec. 13), with the biggest impact to their activities being the science they perform. Expedition 38 astronaut Rick Mastracchio did a live media interview this morning (EST) where he similarly assured reporters that everyone on board is fine.

Cooling problems have happened on station before, most recently in May when an emergency spacewalk was needed to replace a pump controller box on the P6 (far port) truss. This particular cooling system experienced an issue in 2010, which required three contingency spacewalks to remove and replace a failed pump on the S1 truss.

Expedition 24 astronaut Douglas Wheelock exits the Quest airlock at the beginning of a spacewalk Aug. 11, 2010 to replace a failed ammonia pump on the International Space Station's S1 truss. Credit: NASA
Expedition 24 astronaut Douglas Wheelock exits the Quest airlock at the beginning of a spacewalk Aug. 11, 2010 to replace a failed ammonia pump on the International Space Station’s S1 truss. Credit: NASA

If a spacewalk is needed this time around, NASA has three spare pumps available on station for astronauts to use. NASA, however, is looking at all options before making a decision — including ways of controlling the errant valve from the ground. The agency is holding multiple meetings to decide what to do next after turning on and off the cooling loop yesterday and seeing the same malfunction.

On Monday, NASA will decide whether to move forward with a launch of a cargo spacecraft expected to head to the station on Dec. 18. The window for Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus spacecraft extends to Dec. 21 or 22, but as of Thursday (Dec. 12), the agency said the lack of redundant systems on station violates certain “commit criteria” for the launch to move forward.

While NASA spacewalks were suspended, activity using the Russian Orlan spacesuits has continued as usual. A spacewalk took place in November with the Olympic torch, amid other duties. Another spacewalk is planned Dec. 27 to install high- and medium-resolution cameras, put in a foot restraint, and remove and replace several external experiment packages.

Spacesuit Leak And Fist Pumps: Ride Along With Astronaut’s Eventful Space Station Mission

The big news around astronaut circles these days is the assignment of Takuya Onishi — from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency — to Expedition 48/49 around June 2016. Onishi is from the class of 2009, and we’re guessing he’d be sure to poll his classmates on how their mission training is going.

Well, another of the 2009 astronaut class — Luca Parmitano — just returned from six months in space. It was an eventful mission, with Parmitano facing down a scary water leak during a spacewalk, using the Canadarm to berth and let go of a cargo spacecraft, and then delighting the Internet with enthusiastic fist pumps just minutes after he landed.

Parmitano speaks about the science on station (up to 150 experiments at one time!) as well as what he was experiencing during the leak:

 

“We were starting our third task, and I felt some water on the back of my head,” he said in an undated video from orbit included in the new video. “And I realized it was cold water. It was not a normal feeling. So I called ground, and that point we called to terminate the EVA.”

But he made it back safely, and looks more than ready to take on another mission in this picture. The cause of the leak is still under investigation, and NASA is holding off on more spacewalks with American suits until they figure out what happened.

Parmitano’s mission also featured a unique collaboration with teenager Abby Harrison, who broadcasted her own question-and-answer sessions with him for the astronaut to reach a younger audience.

Can The International Space Station Fit Bigger Astronaut Crews?

Things are a little more crowded than usual in the International Space Station. For a few days, nine astronauts and cosmonauts are floating in the cramped quarters of the orbiting complex. Typical crew sizes range between three and six. How did the astronauts find room to work and sleep?

“One of the things we had to do was make space for them,” said European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano in a rare press conference today (Nov. 8) from orbit, which included participation from Universe Today. He then explained a procedure where the astronauts swapped a Soyuz crew spacecraft from one Russian docking port to another a few days before Expedition 38/39’s crew arrived on board on Thursday. This cleared the way for three more people to arrive.

“We [also] had to adjust for emergency procedures. All of our procedures are trained and worked for a group of six. We had to work on a way to respond if something happened.” As for sleeping, it was decided the six people already on board, “as seniority, would stay in the crew quarters.” The newer astronauts have temporary sleeping arrangements in other modules until the ranks thin out a bit on Sunday.

So this works for a short while, but what about the long-term? Could the station handle having nine people there for weeks at a time, rather than six, and would there be enough science work to go around?

Luca Parmitano controlled the K-10 rover from space on July 26, 2013. Credit: NASA Television (screencap)
Luca Parmitano controlling the K-10 rover from space on July 26, 2013 in a test intended to see how well astronauts in a spacecraft can communicate with rovers on the surface. This information could be used for missions far in the future. Credit: NASA Television (screencap)

“I think, absolutely, moving to nine people is doable and in terms of the science would be fantastic,” NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg said. The station partners had experience with increasing crews before, she added, as for several years a regular space station rotation was only three astronauts during construction. Bumping up to the current maximum of six was a “big jump.”

“One of the things to be concerned about our environmental control system, our CO2 [carbon dioxide scrubbing] system … and also the consumables and the supplies we need,” she added. “Making up the science for us to do would be very doable. I think the hard part would be getting the systems to accommodate nine people.”

Parmitano, Nyberg and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin plan to return to Earth Sunday, but a busy weekend lies ahead. On Saturday, Roscosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency) flight engineers Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy of the Russian Federal Space Agency will start a spacewalk around 9:30 a.m. EST (2:30 p.m. UTC) if all goes to plan.

Expedition 38/39 poses with the Olympic torch that they brought into orbit with them in November 2013 as part of the relay for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. From left, Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Mikhail Tyurin of Roscosmos, and Rick Mastracchio of NASA. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Expedition 38/39 poses with the Olympic torch that they brought into orbit with them in November 2013 as part of the relay for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. From left, Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Mikhail Tyurin of Roscosmos, and Rick Mastracchio of NASA. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

As part of the Olympic torch relay ahead of the Sochi games in 2014, they will briefly bring the Olympic torch outside with them, unlit, before doing some outside maintenance.

“After the photo opportunity, Kotov and Ryazanskiy will prepare a pointing platform on the hull of the station’s Zvezda service module for the installation of a high resolution camera system in December, relocate … a foot restraint for use on future spacewalks and deactivate an experiment package,” NASA stated in a Thursday press release.

Several journalists were unable to ask questions during the NASA portion of the press conference, which included participation from countries covered by NASA, the European Space Agency, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and Roscosmos (the Russian Federal Space Agency).

“We had a failure in a crucial component in the phone bridge,” NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries told Universe Today following the media event. They don’t know what component failed, but most of the journalists were unable to hear the moderator or the astronauts.

“A piece of equipment picked the wrong time to fail,” Humphries said

NASA will do a thorough investigation before holding another event like this to make sure it works for everyone.

Here’s a replay of the news conference:

Topsy-Turvy Aurora Caught On Astronaut’s Camera

Isn’t that aurora facing the wrong way? Not if you’re in space!

NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins tweeted this picture from his perch on the International Space Station a few days ago. He sounds jazzed to be on his first mission: “Can’t believe this is really me from the Cupola and that I’ve been in space for almost 3 weeks now!” he wrote on Twitter Oct. 15.

We’d be pretty excited, too! Luca Parmitano (from the European Space Agency) is also on his first trip into space. In between their many experiments, the rookies must relish the opportunity to take pictures of the view. Which image of theirs below is your favorite? Did we miss any notable shots? Let us know in the comments.

"Blue liquid silk folds and unfolds in the #Caribbean." European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano, Oct. 16, 2013. (Twitter)
“Blue liquid silk folds and unfolds in the #Caribbean.” European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano, Oct. 16, 2013. (Twitter)
"Not something you see every day first hand.  With features like this, Dubai stands out from 260 miles up." NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, Oct. 14, 2013. (Twitter)
“Not something you see every day first hand. With features like this, Dubai stands out from 260 miles up.” NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, Oct. 14, 2013. (Twitter)
"The sculpted mountains of the Iranian deserts." European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano, Oct. 15, 2013. (Twitter)
“The sculpted mountains of the Iranian deserts.” European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano, Oct. 15, 2013. (Twitter)
"What remains of Hurricane Phailin after it reached land." European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano, Oct. 13, 2013. (Twitter)
“What remains of Hurricane Phailin after it reached land.” European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano, Oct. 13, 2013. (Twitter)

And of course, they’re grinning like crazy up there.

"Impossible not to smile with such a view!" European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano, Oct. 16, 2013.
“Impossible not to smile with such a view!” European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano, Oct. 16, 2013. (Twitter)
"Can't believe this is really me from the Cupola and that I've been in space for almost 3 weeks now!" NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, Oct. 15, 2013. (Twitter)
“Can’t believe this is really me from the Cupola and that I’ve been in space for almost 3 weeks now!” NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, Oct. 15, 2013. (Twitter)

Awesome Photo: Aurora, Airglow, City Lights and Shining Stars

Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano shares a lot of fantastic photos taken from his privileged position 260 miles up aboard the Space Station, orbiting the planet 16 times a day. This is his latest, a stunning view of nighttime city lights spread out beneath a glowing dome of ghostly airglow and shimmering aurorae, with a backdrop of brightly shining stars. The dark silhouette of a solar array is in the foreground at right.

And in case you were wondering, yes, astronauts certainly can see stars while in space. A lot of them, in fact. (Except up there, they don’t twinkle… but they’re no less beautiful!)

“Every time we look into the sky and we admire the same stars, we share the same experience with all those who still know how to dream.”

– Luca Parmitano

Luca Parmitano is the first of ESA’s new generation of astronauts to fly into space. The current mission, Volare, is ESA’s fifth long-duration Space Station mission. During his six-month-long stay aboard the ISS, Luca has been conducting research for ESA and international partners as well as taken many photographs of our planet, sharing them on Twitter, Flickr, and the Volare mission blog.

See this and more photos taken by Luca on the Volare Flickr page here.

Image credit: ESA/NASA

This Teenager Hosts Earth-To-Space Q&As With An Orbiting Astronaut

Meet Abigail Harrison. This teenager’s enthusiasm about space so impressed Luca Parmitano — who just happens to be a European Space Agency astronaut on the space station right now — that the two have a social media collaboration going.

Abby collects questions from readers of her blog (AstronautAbby.com) and sends them up to the station for Parmitano to read and respond to.

Parmitano’s first mission in space, which he calls Volare (“Fly”), has been a busy one. He’s driven a rover, practiced grappling techniques for the Cygnus spacecraft — which was delayed in its docking to Tuesday (now Saturday) — and experienced two spacewalks (one went to plan, and the other was cut short due to a spacesuit leak).

Meanwhile, Abby had a space-y summer of her own. She fundraised thousands of dollars to see Parmitano’s launch in May. Then she went to Space Camp and toured several NASA and international agency centers. We caught up with Abby to find out how things are going — and if this brings her any closer to her dream of going to space herself. Below is a slightly edited e-mail conversation about her adventures.

Universe Today: How’s it going with the partnership?

Abigail Harrison: Working with Luca has been a lot of fun! I have really enjoyed being able to e-mail with him on station and especially the opportunity I had to talk to him while visiting Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL at the end of July. The AstronautAbby community has been very active sharing images of the Space Station flying by for my #CatchLuca weekly blog post, and the #AskLuca questions submitted by my community have been great. It’s fun to hear how Luca answers these questions each week.

UT: What are the best things that you have been doing specifically to spread the message of Volare?

AH: I think my #CatchLuca blog series has been a real hit! So many people from around the world have taken photos of the ISS passing overhead and decided to submit them and share with the world. It’s been great! I think this helps to spread the message as it is people on Earth getting excited about the space station and sharing their own pictures. The more sharing that happens, the more aware people get about the mission and the more they learn.

Luca Parmitano, a European Space Agency astronaut, is on his first voyage to space as a part of Expeditions 36/37. Credit: NASA
Luca Parmitano, a European Space Agency astronaut, is on his first voyage to space as a part of Expeditions 36/37. Credit: NASA

The #AskLuca series has also been very successful. It’s true, anyone can jump on social media and ask a question of Luca or any astronaut and they most likely will answer it, but this series has allowed people who may not be socially savvy to ask questions, as well as people to ask longer questions. The fact that all the answers are published on my blog is also great as people can read it in a published article versus on a social media update.

UT: Tell us more about these NASA tours you’ve been doing lately. What is your goal in doing them?

AH: I have been fortunate to be in the right places at the right time. This summer I was in Houston for a gymnastics camp, and therefore I was able to tour the Johnson Space Center – but not just tour the center, I got to see the Neutral Buoyancy Lab and compare it to the Russian counterpart that I saw in May during my visit to Star City [astronaut training complex in Russia] when attending Luca’s launch. I also was able to go on the floor of Mission Control and see a specialized robotics lab, along with a lot of other cool things.

Abigail Harrison simulates repairing a satellite during Space Camp in Huntsville, AL. Credit: Abigail Harrison
Abigail Harrison simulates repairing a satellite during Space Camp in Huntsville, AL. Credit: Abigail Harrison

 

After Houston, I headed to Huntsville for Space Camp. While in Huntsville I was able to tour the Marshall Space Flight Center and specifically see some of the work NASA is doing along with ATK to build the Space Launch System, which is the rocket system that will take me to Mars someday (similar but much bigger than the Saturn V rockets that took Apollo to the moon).

Finally,  I visited Lockheed Martin’s facilities in Colorado to see the production of the Orion, which is the spacecraft currently being developed to go to Mars, the moon and asteroids. These visits have tremendous value as I have been able to share pictures, write about the visits and talk about what I have seen with people everywhere.

The goal is to learn about what is being done right now to realize the future American missions to Mars, the moon and asteroids and continue human space flight. The more I learn and understand about our current efforts to realize the future of human space exploration, the easier it is for me to talk about the future and educate the general public. Part of my mission is to help spread the word to people around the world about the future of human space flight and get the public excited for what we will do next.

Abigail Harrison with subscale test rocket motors during a visit to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. Credit: Abigail Harrison
Abigail Harrison with subscale test rocket motors during a visit to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. Credit: Abigail Harrison

UT: I’m sure you’ve been talking to Luca regularly. What do you talk about?

AH: We e-mail and tweet quite a bit. We have only talked once. To be honest, I follow his mission very closely through his online updates and ESA and NASA updates for my role as his Earth Liaison, and therefore I am up to date on what he is doing, probably more up to date than most people.

When we e-mail and talk it is usually about other things like advice on school, travel (he lives in Houston so gave me some good tips on what to see while visiting), and generally asking him how he is doing and what it is like to live and work on the ISS. It’s not that different from when he was training for his mission on Earth, except for now he is flying in space overhead and his e-mails and tweets come from space. 🙂

UT: Do you feel any closer to being in space as a result of this partnership?

AH: Yes, I do. How could I not? I would guess that anyone who personally knows an astronaut living on the ISS would feel closer to being in space. The personal connection means you are paying close attention to everything the astronaut is doing, and following the mission very closely.

The fact that I am sharing so much of what Luca is doing as part of my role as his Earth Liaison also helps me feel closer to being in space, because I am sharing with so many people and they in turn offer me support everyday towards my goals. I watch Luca and can imagine the day when it’s my turn to go into space. It’s been an incredible experience to get to be part of his mission.

‘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.