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How An Astronaut Nearly Drowned During a Space Walk 144

Posted by Soulskill
from the forgot-his-snorkel dept.
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "About 44 minutes into a 6.5-hour spacewalk last July, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano noted that water was building up inside his helmet – the second consecutive spacewalk during which he reported the problem. As Parmitano worked his way back to the air lock, water covered his eyes, filled his ears, disrupted communications, and eventually began to enter his nose, making it difficult for him to breathe. 'I know that if the water does overwhelm me I can always open the helmet,' wrote Parmitano about making it to the airlock. 'I'll probably lose consciousness, but in any case that would be better than drowning inside the helmet.' Later, when crew mates removed his helmet, they found that it contained at least 1.5 quarts of water. In a 122-page report released Wednesday, a mishap investigation board identified a range of causes for the near-tragedy, including organizational causes that carried echoes of accident reports that followed the loss of the shuttles Challenger and Columbia and their crews in 1986 and 2003. Engineers traced the leak to a fan-and-pump assembly that is part of a system that extracts moisture from the air inside the suit and returns it to the suit's water-based cooling system. Contaminants clogged holes that would have carried the water to the cooling system after it was extracted from the air. The water backed up and flowed into the suit's air-circulation system, which sent it into Parmitano's helmet (PDF).

The specific cause of the contamination is still under investigation but investigators also identified deeper causes, one of which involved what some accident-investigation specialists have dubbed the 'normalization of deviance' – small malfunctions that appear so often that eventually they are accepted as normal. In this case, small water leaks had been observed in space-suit helmets for years, despite the knowledge that the water could form a film on the inside of a helmet, fogging the visor or reacting with antifogging chemicals on the visor in ways that irritate eyes. NASA officials are not planning on resuming non-urgent spacewalks before addressing all 16 of the highest priority suggestions from the Mishap Investigation Board. 'I think it's a tribute to the agency that we're not hiding this stuff, that we're actually out trying to describe these things, and to describe where we can get better,' says William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. 'I think that's how we prevent Columbias and Challengers.'"
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How An Astronaut Nearly Drowned During a Space Walk

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  • by Galaga88 (148206) on Friday February 28, 2014 @11:02AM (#46367437)

    Given the fact that astronauts and cosmonauts have only died trying to launch from, and land on, the Earth, space itself seems surprisingly safe.

    It's probably because all the excitement and explosions occur at the taking off and landing, and most of our actual time in space is spent traveling in big circles.

  • by Stormy Dragon (800799) on Friday February 28, 2014 @11:09AM (#46367477) Homepage

    'I think it's a tribute to the agency that we're not hiding this stuff, that we're actually out trying to describe these things, and to describe where we can get better."

    Except you were hiding it, for years. You only revealed it when it caused such a crisis that it could not longer be hidden.

  • by gerardrj (207690) on Friday February 28, 2014 @11:23AM (#46367571) Journal

    They ignore obviously risk laden malfunctions and events until someone is killed or put in serious jeopardy in a public manner. If this astronaut had not almost drowned the issue would still be getting ignored.

    Time, and time again NASA managers ignore risk and push the "go" mentality. I can't think of a single death or significant injury/risk in the NASA programs where the end result of investigation was "well, it was an unforeseeable accident". Each and every case I recall there were engineers saying "there's a problem we need to fix" and managers just kept ignoring it. From Gemini and Apollo through the SST and now the ISS; this is a disease at the core of NASA that needs to be sterilized.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 28, 2014 @11:42AM (#46367729)

    Why is so hard to use sensible units of measure?
    WHAT THE FUCK IS A QUART?

  • by Bigbutt (65939) on Friday February 28, 2014 @12:09PM (#46367909) Homepage Journal

    Stupid people on the internet again. Hey, why not just bring up google and type in "convert 1.5 quarts to quatloos" or whatever your preferred method of measure is? Mandarin is the most common language on Earth. Why aren't we typing in a sensible language like Mandarin?

    Idiot.

    [John]

  • by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater&gmail,com> on Friday February 28, 2014 @12:17PM (#46367985) Homepage

    I can't think of a single death or significant injury/risk in the NASA programs where the end result of investigation was "well, it was an unforeseeable accident". Each and every case I recall there were engineers saying "there's a problem we need to fix" and managers just kept ignoring it.

    Your recollection doesn't match mine, and I've spent decades studying the space program. The loss of Challenger comes close, but even then the engineers had been complacent about joint blow-by and O-ring erosion until the eleventh hour - which contributed in a large part to managements confusion and distrust.

    I know there's a Cult Of The Engineer here on Slashdot, but it's badly misguided. Engineers are human, and they do fuck up.

  • Re:Stupid question (Score:4, Insightful)

    by 3.5 stripes (578410) on Friday February 28, 2014 @01:28PM (#46368633)

    I'm guessing you've never had a sip of water go down the "wrong pipe" ?

There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman? -- Woody Allen

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