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

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

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.

Weekly Space Hangout – Aug. 23, 2013: Mars One, Zombie WISE, Luca Parmitano, Wave at Saturn

It’s time for the Weekly Space Hangout. This is our weekly rundown on all the big space news stories of the week, explained by a dedicated team of space journalists.

Host:Fraser Cain

Panel: Alan Boyle, Brian Koberlein, Jason Major, Nicole Gugliucci

Mars One Reaches 165,000 Entries
WISE Returns from the Dead
Luca Parmitano’s Chilling First-Hand Account of His Mishap in Space
Baby Stars Belch in their Mama’s Face
Mars, Not as Big as the Moon
Earth Waves At Saturn
Exoplanet with a Short Year

We broadcast the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday afternoon as a live Google+ Hangout. You can join us live on Google+, YouTube or right here on Universe Today every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern.

Don’t Panic: How Space Emergency Astronaut Training Works

Safety in spaceflight comes from working the procedures in training so often that responses become automatic, says German astronaut Alexander Gerst, shown here during spacewalk training. Credit: NASA

Routines. They tell you when to get up in the morning, what to do at your day job and how to handle myriad tasks ranging from house cleaning to using a computer. Memorizing these procedures makes it a lot easier to handle things that come up in life.

In space, establishing routines is even more important because they will help guide your thinking during an emergency. That’s why astronauts spend thousands of hours learning, simulating and memorizing before heading up to space.

European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst, who will fly to the International Space Station in 2014 during Expedition 40/41, gave Universe Today some insight on how it’s done.

Why train so often? According to Gerst, practicing an emergency procedure on the ground makes it easier to think clearly during a situation up in space. An astronaut’s reaction to any problem on station — a fire, a depressurization, toxic air — is to begin with the procedures. “They sink in and become a memorized response or a natural reaction,” he said. In a fire situation, for example, “Immediately when you hear the sound of the alarm, I will grab the nearest gas mask and the nearest emergency book and head to our control post, which is part of the emergency response.” (Chris Cassidy, a former Navy SEAL on station right now, had more to say to Universe Today in March about “muscle memory” during emergencies.)

European Space Agency astronauts Alexander Gerst (left) and Samantha Cristoforetti in Russian Orlan spacesuits during training in 2012. Credit: GCTC
European Space Agency astronauts Alexander Gerst (left) and Samantha Cristoforetti in Russian Orlan spacesuits during training in 2012. Credit: GCTC

What’s the biggest challenge? The complexity of the station. The American and Russian sides have different procedures and different equipment. There are three types of gas masks on station, for example, and three kinds of fire extinguishing systems. (According to Gerst, all but the most stubborn fires on station are extinguished after cutting ventilation and electricity to the affected area.) To address the complexity, the astronauts spend hours in the classroom discussing what to look for in the fire sensors, pressure sensors, ammonia sensors and other parts of the vehicle. The signatures look different for depressurizations, fires and other conditions in space and it’s key to know what they mean at a glance.

What happens during a simulation? After discussing what actions to take, it’s time to play them out. “We don’t light our modules on fire, but the trainers are creative in creating that [emergency] condition,” Gerst said. Sometimes smoke machines will be used during a fire simulation, for example, or the astronauts will simply be informed by instructors that there is a fire in a section of the station. As the astronauts go through the procedures, trainers keep an eye on them and give feedback. In more complex situations, 10 to 20 flight controllers can join in to simulate communications with Mission Control in Houston or its equivalent in Russia.

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst (left) and NASA astronaut Gregory Reid Wiseman (middle) during training at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Credit: ESA–S. Corvaja
ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst (left) and NASA astronaut Gregory Reid Wiseman (middle) during training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Credit: ESA–S. Corvaja

What about dealing with emergencies in a smaller spacecraft? Astronauts can spend anywhere from hours to days on a Russian Soyuz getting to and from the station. If there’s a fire on board, the three people squashed inside the capsule wouldn’t have much room to deploy fire extinguishers. The response is essentially for astronauts to slam shut the visors on their spacesuits and vent the spacecraft. During a depressurization, the procedure is also to close the visor. “You don’t even have to get out of your seat to deal with the emergency, which makes it quite different,” Gerst said.

What about emergencies during a spacewalk? Astronauts spend hundreds of hours inside the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, a huge pool with a mockup of most of the International Space Station inside. They practice spacewalk procedures such as how to bring an unconscious crew member back to the airlock, or what to do if air leaks out of a spacesuit. Gerst credits this sort of training for helping out during a recent incident involving fellow ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano. In July, emergency procedures kicked in for real when Parmitano’s spacesuit sprung a water leak during a spacewalk. In a nutshell, the crew worked to bring Parmitano back inside as quickly as possible, which led to a safe (but early) end to the work. (Read Parmitano’s nail-biting first-hand account of the incident here.)

What’s the big takeaway? Gerst emphasizes that emergency training is a “huge topic”. He and Reid Wiseman recently got checked out for emergency procedures on the United States side of the station, only to fly to Moscow and then have to do the same thing for the Russian side in mid-August. And there’s other training to do as well — another huge topic is medical emergencies , which Gerst practiced in a German hospital in July.

Stunning Photo from Space: Moon Rising Amid Noctilucent Clouds

The Moon rises surrounded by noctilucent clouds, as seen from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA/ASI/ESA. Via Luca Parmitano on Twitter.

Recently, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano spent a “night flight” in the Cupola of the International Space Station in hopes of capturing night-time images of his home country from space. But he saw so much more, including this incredible image of the crescent Moon rising among bright blue noctilucent clouds. These wispy and mysterious clouds appear in Earth’s mesosphere — a region extending from 30 to 53 miles (48-85 km) high in the atmosphere — at twilight, usually in early summer. They can be seen from Earth’s northern hemisphere and, obviously, are visible from space too.

You can read about Parmitano’s night flight and see more of the images he took at his Volare blog. At the close of his image-taking night flight he says, “It’s late, and tomorrow will be a long day. With those lights still filling my eyes, I slowly close the seven windows and cross the Station to return to my sleeping pod. Not even dreams could replace the beautiful reality that revolves, oblivious, beneath us.”

Find out more about the science of noctilucent clouds here in our recent article by Bob King.

Below is another image of noctilucent clouds taken by Parmitano on July 28, 2013:

Bright blue noctilucent clouds seen on July 28, 2013. Credit: NASA/ISI/ESA, via Luca Parmitano on Twitter.
Bright blue noctilucent clouds seen on July 28, 2013. Credit: NASA/ISI/ESA, via Luca Parmitano on Twitter.

Weekly Space Hangout – August 2, 2013

It’s time for another Weekly Space Hangout, where we give you a rundown of the big space news stories of the week, from a team of scientists and space journalists.

Host: Fraser Cain

Participants: Sondy Springmann, Alan Boyle, Brian Koberlein, Nicole Gugliucci, David Dickinson

Alan Boyle Visits Blue Origin Facility
Arecibo Images 2003 DZ15
Comet ISON Will or Won’t Fizzle
Polarization of the Cosmic Microwave
Update on the Spacesuit Leak

We record the Weekly Space Hangout live on Google+ every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch the show live here on Universe Today, or the archived version on YouTube.

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

Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano during a spacesuit fit check before his mission. Credit: NASA

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”

Spacesuit Water Leak Prompts NASA Mishap Investigation

Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano during a spacesuit fit check before his mission. Credit: NASA

In the wake of a spacesuit water leak that sent two astronauts back to the airlock early during a spacewalk last week, NASA has convened a board to look at “lessons learned” from the mishap.

The cause of the leak, which filled Luca Parmitano’s helmet with water, is still being investigated. Some media reports say it may have been a fault within the spacesuit’s cooling system. NASA stated it plans to “develop a set of lessons learned from the incident and suggest ways to prevent a similar problem in the future.”

Chairing the board will be Chris Hansen, the International Space Station’s chief engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The other four members, who are all from NASA, include:

  • Mike Foreman, NASA astronaut, Johnson Space Center;
  • Richard Fullerton, International Space Station safety and mission assurance lead, Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, NASA headquarters;
  • Sudhakar Rajula, human factors specialist, Johnson Space Center;
  • Joe Pellicciotti, chief engineer, NASA Engineering and Safety Center, Goddard Space Flight Center.

The July 16 spacewalk stopped early at 1 hour, 32 minutes, far shorter than the crew’s planned 6.5-hour outing. All of the tasks can be easily pushed off to another time, NASA has said. The astronauts were preparing data cables and power for a Russian laboratory module that should reach the station by early 2014, among other tasks.

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.

During and immediately after the spacewalk, NASA said the crew was in no immediate danger. A few days afterwards, Parmitano reassured officials at the European Space Agency. “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 an ESA blog post.

Still, there was so much water inside the helmet that after a time, Parmitano had trouble hearing and communicating with his crewmates. “Squeeze my hand if you’re fine,” fellow EVA member Chris Cassidy said to Parmitano during the spacewalk.

NASA also noted there is an engineering analysis happening that is “focused on resolving equipment trouble in an effort to enable U.S. spacewalks to resume.” The board, by contrast, will be looking at aspects such as quality assurance, flight control, operations and maintenance with an eye to improving NASA human spaceflight activities in general.

NASA did not immediately release a date by which it expects the investigation to finish. Meanwhile, at least one news outlet reported that the agency is rushing some spacesuit repair tools on to a Russian Progress supply ship that will leave Kazakhstan for the International Space Station on Saturday.

Source: NASA

Weekly Space Hangout – July 19, 2013

Here’s our Weekly Space Hangout for July 19, 2013. Watch as a team of space and astronomy journalists discuss the big space stories of the week. We do this every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific Time / 3:00 pm Eastern Time. You can join us live, or watch the archive here or on Google+.

Host: Fraser Cain

Participants: Sondy Springmann, Amy Shira Teitel, Jason Major, David Dickenson, Dr. Matthew Francis

And here are the stories that we covered.