After Facing Down Ammonia Leak, This Astronaut Will Help Crew During Spacewalks

When you learned to drive a car for the first time, remember how comforting it was to have an experienced driver beside you, able to anticipate the hazards and keep you on schedule?

That’s surely how the Expedition 38 crew feels about one of the voices “on the line” as two astronauts prepare to venture outside to replace a crippled ammonia pump. One of the “CapComs” or people communicating with the crew on Saturday, Monday and Wednesday will be astronaut Doug Wheelock — who just happens to be known for co-replacing a broken ammonia tank himself in 2010. (The other CapCom is Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide, who will chat through robotic procedures with Koichi Wakata).

Wheelock is the visible edge of hundreds — likely thousands — of people working feverishly at NASA and its international partners this past week to get the spacewalks ready through pool simulations, a virtual reality lab and other means. Several backup and non-critical space station systems are offline because of that pump, which has to regulate temperatures properly for vital electronics to work.

“I am their choreographer,” Wheelock told Universe Today of his plan for the astronauts. While spacewalkers Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio already know what they are supposed to do when, Wheelock said he will be “their eyes and ears on the timeline.” If something needs to be stopped or changed, he’ll help them figure out what to do next.

NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock anchored to Canadarm2 during an August 2010 spacewalk. He and Tracy Caldwell Dyson ventured outside three times during Expedition 24 to swap out and replace a broken ammonia pump. Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock anchored to Canadarm2 during an August 2010 spacewalk. He and Tracy Caldwell Dyson ventured outside three times during Expedition 24 to swap out and replace a broken ammonia pump. Credit: NASA

Wheelock and fellow astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson had to spring into action themselves in August 2010. A pump in the same location broke, forcing space station systems offline and requiring them to go outside a few days later. With astronaut Shannon Walker piloting Canadarm2, the astronauts accomplished their tasks in three spacewalks — but encountered obstacles along the way.

During the first spacewalk, as Wheelock disconnected lines from the broken pump, he not only faced a pipe that wouldn’t let go, but a shower of ammonia snowflakes. That was “what got me on the EVA [extra-vehicular activity],” he recalled. That’s why NASA plans to lower the line pressure on the cooling system before the astronauts head outside this time. Normally the lines are pressurized at 360 pounds per square inch, but they’ll be lowered to 120 psi through commands from the ground.

Other “lessons learned” are more recent. Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano was wearing a NASA spacesuit in July when he experienced a water leak in his helmet, putting him at risk and terminating the spacewalk early. This will be the first spacewalk since that time. NASA believes it has replaced the part of the suit that failed, but the agency has new backups in place. Hopkins and Mastracchio will have soaker pads in their helmets as well as a “snorkel”-like device, or tube that will let them breathe oxygen from a different part of the suit if water flows into the helmet again.

Allison Bolinger, NASA's lead U.S. spacewalk officer, holds up a snorkel-like device that astronauts began using in spacesuits in December 2013. The pipe (modified from spacesuit parts) is supposed to be a backup if a helmet fills with water, as what occurred during a July 2013 spacewalk. Credit: NASA (YouTube/screenshot)
Allison Bolinger, NASA’s lead U.S. spacewalk officer, holds up a snorkel-like device that astronauts began using in spacesuits in December 2013. The pipe (modified from spacesuit parts) is supposed to be a backup if a helmet fills with water, as what occurred during a July 2013 spacewalk. Credit: NASA (YouTube/screenshot)

So what are some key parts of the spacewalks to look for? Wheelock identified a few spots.

‘HAP’ check. That soaker pad is called a “helmet absorption pad”, and as a matter of course the astronauts will be asked to verify that the pad is not wet at the same time that they also check their gloves for tears (another lesson learned from a past spacewalk.) So you will hear Wheelock calling “HAP check” from time to time to the crew.

Unlatching and latching the ammonia connectors on the pumps. Because this is when leaks are most likely to occur — posing a risk to Mastracchio, who is performing the work — Wheelock is going to do a “challenge and response” procedure. He will read up the step, the astronaut will verify it and will do the work. There will be “a lot more chatter on the [voice] loop” during those times, Wheelock said, with everyone on the ground watching through Mastracchio’s head camera feed (visible at the front of the room) to see what is happening. “There will be a lot of people standing in Mission Control at that point,” he joked, himself included.

Leak procedures. If ammonia does start to shower out, Mastracchio will quickly close the valve and wait a few minutes as it could be just residual ammonia in the line. If that doesn’t work out, Mastracchio is trained on a procedure to attach a device to the front end of the connector and move a lever that prevents a cavity in the line from filling with ammonia. Then he can open the valve again, bleed out the ammonia that’s left over and keep going.

NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio inspects two spacesuits to be used during spacewalks in December 2013. The spacewalks were to remove and replace a faulty ammonia pump. Credit: NASA TV
NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio inspects two spacesuits to be used during spacewalks in December 2013. The spacewalks were to remove and replace a faulty ammonia pump. Credit: NASA TV

Decontamination procedures. The ammonia makes a distinctive “ping” when it hits the helmet, says Wheelock (who yes, heard that happen himself.) You can also see ammonia on the suit, he said, as it looks a bit like candle wax and obscures the stitching. All of which to say, NASA has procedures in place if the agency suspects or can confirm large amounts of ammonia got on Mastracchio’s suit. (Small amounts would essentially fleck off in the sun.) Hopkins, who will be out of the line of fire, can do a thorough inspection of Mastracchio and scrape off any ammonia with a warm metal tool — without hurting the suit underneath. The astronauts could also do a “bakeout” in the airlock — 30 minutes if suspected, an hour if confirmed — where they will sit with the hatch open and wait for any ammonia to sublimate off the suit. Once they close the hatch, the astronauts can verify if the ammonia is gone using Drager tubes, which have gold crystals inside that turn “purpleish blue” in the presence of ammonia, Wheelock said.

Margin calls. Because NASA needs to make sure the astronauts have 30 to 60 minutes to decontaminate at the end of their spacewalks, officials will preserve a margin of oxygen available for the astronauts to walk through that work. So it’s possible the agency may terminate a spacewalk before all tasks are completed just because they need that bit of margin at the end.

To learn more, Wheelock has been answering questions occasionally on his Twitter account from followers, and you can read through what he posts when he finds the time. Universe Today will also cover the spacewalks (currently planned for Saturday, Monday and Wednesday) as they occur.

Teenaged Space Station Thriving After 15 Years Of Science, Extreme Construction And Tricky Repairs

Extreme conditions surround the International Space Station’s scientific work, to say the least. It takes a rocketship to get there. Construction required more than 1,000 hours of people using spacesuits. Astronauts must balance their scientific work with the need to repair stuff when it breaks (like an ammonia coolant leak this past spring.)

But amid these conditions, despite what could have been show-stoppers to construction such as the Columbia shuttle tragedy of 2003, and in the face of changing political priorities and funding from the many nations building the station, there the ISS orbits. Fully built, although more is being added every year. The first module (Zarya) launched into space 15 years ago tomorrow. Humans have been on board continuously since November 2000, an incredible 13 years.

The bulk of construction wrapped up in 2011, but the station is still growing and changing and producing science for the researchers sending experiments up there. Below are some of the milestones of construction in the past couple of decades. Did we miss something important? Let us know in the comments.

It's a baby space station! The Russian Zarya module (left) and U.S. Unity module after they were joined on Dec. 4, 1998. Photograph taken by the STS-88 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour. Credit: NASA
It’s a baby space station! The Russian Zarya module (left) and U.S. Unity module after they were joined on Dec. 4, 1998. Photograph taken by the STS-88 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour. Credit: NASA
The space station with newly installed U.S. solar arrays (top) in December 2000. Picture taken by the departing STS-97 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour. Credit: NASA
The space station with newly installed U.S. solar arrays (top) in December 2000. Picture taken by the departing STS-97 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour. Credit: NASA
The Expedition 1 crew, which docked with the space station on Nov. 2, 2000. From left, NASA's Bill Shepherd, and Roscosmos' Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev. Humans have lived continuously in orbit since that day, more than 13 years ago. Credit: NASA
The Expedition 1 crew, which docked with the space station on Nov. 2, 2000. From left, NASA’s Bill Shepherd, and Roscosmos’ Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev. Humans have lived continuously in orbit since that day, more than 13 years ago. Credit: NASA
STS-114 NASA astronaut Steve Robinson in 2005 aboard Canadarm2, a robotic arm designed specifically for International Space Station construction. Canadarm2 was installed during STS-100 in 2001. It took more than 1,000 hours of spacewalking assembly to put the station together. Credit: NASA
STS-114 NASA astronaut Steve Robinson in 2005 aboard Canadarm2, a robotic arm designed specifically for International Space Station construction. Canadarm2 was installed during STS-100 in 2001. It took more than 1,000 hours of spacewalking assembly to put the station together. Credit: NASA
With NASA Expedition 2 astronaut Susan Helms controlling Canadarm2, the Quest airlock is brought over for installation on Unity Node 1 aboard the International Space Station. Today, Quest is the usual departure point for U.S. spacewalks. Credit: NASA
With NASA Expedition 2 astronaut Susan Helms controlling Canadarm2, the Quest airlock is brought over for installation on Unity Node 1 aboard the International Space Station. Today, Quest is the usual departure point for U.S. spacewalks. Credit: NASA
November 3, 2007 – Canadarm2 played a big role in helping astronauts fix a torn solar array.  The arm’s reach was extended by the Orbiter Boom Sensor System, and here, allowing astronaut Scott Parazynski analyses the solar panel while anchored to the boom. Credit: NASA
From time to time, astronauts are called upon to perform tricky repairs to the International Space Station. This October 2007 spacewalk by NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski during shuttle mission STS-120 repaired tears to one of the station’s solar panels — while the panel was powered. Spacewalks have also addressed ammonia leaks, among other things. Credit: NASA
European Space Agency astronaut Hans Schlegel works on installing the ESA Columbus laboratory in 2008. The ten racks on board Columbus can be worked on by astronauts or controlled remotely from a center in Germany. NASA is trying to position the station as an orbiting laboratory that can perform experiments that are impossible on Earth, but astronauts must balance science work with maintenance tasks aboard the station. Credit: NASA
European Space Agency astronaut Hans Schlegel works on installing the ESA Columbus laboratory in 2008. The ten racks on board Columbus can be worked on by astronauts or controlled remotely from a center in Germany. NASA is trying to position the station as an orbiting laboratory that can perform experiments that are impossible on Earth, but astronauts must balance science work with maintenance tasks aboard the station. Credit: NASA
Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson reflects on the view from the ISS's Cupola. Credit: Doug Wheelock/NASA
Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson (Expedition 23/24) reflects on the view from the ISS’s Cupola in 2010. This panoramic window to Earth was a late addition to the station, in February 2010. Credit: Doug Wheelock/NASA
Space station construction is still ongoing. In 2015, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be attached to the station as a sort of inflatable room. The test will examine the viability of inflatable structures in space. Pictured in front are NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and Robert T. Bigelow, president and founder of Bigelow Aerospace in 2013. NASA/Bill Ingalls
Space station construction is still ongoing. In 2015, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be attached to the station as a sort of inflatable room. The test will examine the viability of inflatable structures in space. Pictured in front are NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and Robert T. Bigelow, president and founder of Bigelow Aerospace in 2013. NASA/Bill Ingalls

Stunning Image, Heartfelt Poetry Could Become Icons of Space Age

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Undoubtedly, this picture has what it takes to become an iconic image of human spaceflight, much like Apollo 8’s Earthrise or Bruce McCandless’ untethered spacewalk. Here, astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson looks down at Earth from the Cupola on the International Space Station, likely reflecting on both her home and her home in space. Everyone I know who has seen this image has just melted, with a sigh that says, “Oh, wow — that is just amazing!” (It made today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day.) My initial thoughts were that this is the one of the most poetic image of human spaceflight I have ever seen. And sure enough, Stuart Atkinson (the guy who I nominate at the Poet Laureate of Space) was inspired by this image, too. He has written a magnificent, heartfelt poem that captures the spirit –as well as the technology — of this image, and very likely sums up Caldwell Dyson’s thoughts as she gazes out the Cupola windows.

Read “Blue” by Stuart Atkinson:

BLUE

Ignoring the tsunami of technology humming behind her,
The chaos of cameras, computers and calculators
Covering the walls, she shuts her eyes and smiles.
This isn’t what she imagined as a girl.
In all those classroom daydreams she always saw herself
Looking down – or up – at the world from high above – or below –
Beside a plate-sized portal, straining to glimpse
Some small portion of the planet spinning silently beyond
The scratched and fingerprint-smeared glass, unable to see
More than mere hints of the colours, shadows and shapes
Shown in all the books and magazines…

But this…

Earth is there… everywhere…
A ball of burning blue close enough to touch.
Painted on the heavens in all its Van Gogh glory
It fills the sky, overflows her sight,
A startling Stargate of colour in an ocean of emptiness.
Even with her eyes closed she still sees its azure glow,
Feels its sapphire shades blazing in the ink-black night.
In the work-day-over darkness, Earthlight
Washes her face like cool rain as painfully beautiful
Whirls and whorls of milk-white cloud swirl
O’er the world below and she knows, in her aching
Heart, that long after she has returned to Terra,
To walk barefoot on its dew-drenched grass and
Splash in its ocean’s surging surf a part of her
Will always be here, at this window, gazing down
Upon the Earth.

© Stuart Atkinson 2010

Thanks to Stu for allowing us to publish his poem, a Universe Today exclusive! To see more of his poetry and imagery, check out his websites, Cumbrian Sky, and Road to Endeavour.