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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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  • Quarts? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Megane (129182) on Friday February 28, 2014 @10:37AM (#46367197) Homepage

    Later, when crew mates removed his helmet, they found that it contained at least 1.5 quarts of water.

    Or at least 1.5 liters of water, if you're Canadian. [wikipedia.org]

  • Was that 1.5 quarters of eight American or English pints?
    • by Megane (129182) on Friday February 28, 2014 @10:47AM (#46367291) Homepage
      A quart is a quarter of a gallon, not a quarter of a pint. Now pint off, you tablespooner.
      • by Muros (1167213)

        A quart is a quarter of a gallon, not a quarter of a pint. Now pint off, you tablespooner.

        And are these gallons of yours some newfangled ones that are not made up of 8 pints?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        It comes in pints???

    • by MickyTheIdiot (1032226) on Friday February 28, 2014 @10:51AM (#46367329) Homepage Journal

      Maybe it's an African or European pint.

      Ask a King. They know such silly things...

  • by tippe (1136385) on Friday February 28, 2014 @10:44AM (#46367263)

    at least it wasn't a failure of the space suit's urine collection system...

    • by oodaloop (1229816)
      Anyone else reminded of the scene in Brazil where the air condition repairmen are shitted to death?
    • at least it wasn't a failure of the space suit's urine collection system...

      which begs the question... is there an efficient fart collection system? In space, no one can smell you toot.

      • by OakDragon (885217)
        Well there was a "turd on the run [huffingtonpost.com]" on Apollo 10. Tellingly, no one owned up to it.
      • by Kelbear (870538)

        I'm told that farts just recirculate through the suit's life-support systems. They just have to endure. Space is hard.

      • by mythosaz (572040)

        which begs the question...

        It does no such thing [wikipedia.org].

  • summery (Score:4, Funny)

    by gbjbaanb (229885) on Friday February 28, 2014 @10:45AM (#46367267)

    Was that actually a good summary for once, or the entire article!

    I guess it stops the usual misinformed, ignorant posts based on a couple of sensationalist headline based loosely upon something that was slightly related to the article from being posted.

  • Stupid question (Score:5, Interesting)

    by NoImNotNineVolt (832851) on Friday February 28, 2014 @10:49AM (#46367309) Homepage
    Couldn't he have, you know, drank the water that was building up?
    • by scotts13 (1371443)

      Couldn't he have, you know, drank the water that was building up?

      That IS a stupid... No, actually, it's not. I'm going to assume, however, that drinking a fluid that's probably floating around as globules inside your helmet, without choking on it, would be tricky. Also, "Ewww, helmet water!"

      • Re:Stupid question (Score:5, Interesting)

        by 3.5 stripes (578410) on Friday February 28, 2014 @10:55AM (#46367367)

        I'd still pick "eww" over drowning, as drowning is supposedly one of the more painful ways to die.

        • by SJHillman (1966756) on Friday February 28, 2014 @11:21AM (#46367555)

          I haven't heard any dead people complaining about it.

          • the question is did he know it was drinkable "water" and not something toxic.

            • by mythosaz (572040)

              Something more or less toxic than suffocation?

            • by Joce640k (829181)

              the question is did he know it was drinkable "water" and not something toxic.

              Why would there be toxic liquids in a space suit? The only liquids in space suits are drinking water, condensed sweat and urine.

        • I'd still pick "eww" over drowning, as drowning is supposedly one of the more painful ways to die.

          painful? i haven't heard that. I do some free diving and have a respectable ~2ish minute breath hold under water. I personally have never experienced shallow water blackout, but i know people who have. it doesn't sound like they ever were in pain. they just blacked out, had someone not rescued them they would have drowned, but the last thing they remembered was peacefully swimming under water. maybe i'm not drowning right.

          on topic, i'd chose drinking the helmet water over drowning too.

          • by X0563511 (793323)

            Drowning is not painful, because it allows CO2 exchange.

          • I probably should have been more specific, drowning in small amounts of water, as it seems a lot of drowning victims do black out before inhaling water.

            • i guess i also accept that some people don't know how to swim or are put into some scenario where they are swallowing / inhaling a mix of water and air. You can go quite some time without any air before you black out so that would likely be , if not painful, really terrifying.

              still, as someone who has both inhaled some water from time to time, and someone who has been burned form time to time, it seems that inhaling water is really far removed from burning on the gradient of most painful ways to die. Bei
    • Re:Stupid question (Score:5, Informative)

      by danomatika (1977210) on Friday February 28, 2014 @10:57AM (#46367383)

      Couldn't he have, you know, drank the water that was building up?

      Without gravity, water floats in bubbles you can't easily blow out of the way and the surface tension can keep the film intact over your nose & mouth if their is enough. If you inhale a bubble, all you have is the force of your breath to blow it out. You can easily imagine a scenario where you run out of air in your lungs as the bubbles keep floating in front of your face in the helmet. Scary is putting it mildly.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        If the bubbles block your mouth, you can swallow them. If they don't, you can still breathe.

      • Re:Stupid question (Score:5, Interesting)

        by NoImNotNineVolt (832851) on Friday February 28, 2014 @11:38AM (#46367689) Homepage
        Now, perhaps microgravity does weird things, but my understanding is that the surface tension of water would cause beads of water to form spherical blobs. Any blobs that touch would generally combine to form larger spherical blobs, and so on.

        I didn't suggest blowing them out of the way. I suggested sucking them into the mouth, and then swallowing them. Presumably, if they're near the nose, exhaling through the nose would push them towards the mouth. If they're not near the nose or the mouth, then they're not a threat to breathing.

        I wouldn't expect water to create a film over any surface, as that would not maximize the ratio of volume to surface area (which is what surface tension accomplishes). I similarly wouldn't expect the water to exist as a fine mist or any other collection of small blobs, since surface tension causes water to "stick" to itself, resulting in the merging of any smaller blobs.

        Then again, I've never played with water in microgravity. Considering launching a kickstarter where you can fund my flight aboard the Vomit Comet, where I will attempt to drink blobs of free-floating water in microgravity while I wear a bikini and show off my moobs ala Kate Upton. Any takers?
        • Someone just invented Nose Powered Space Helmet Pinball.

        • I wouldn't expect water to create a film over any surface

          If you are reader: Look up hydrophilic vs hydrophobic, Contact Angle or Wetting Angle, and "surface energy / surface tensions, and young's relation

          If you like videos: video [khanacademy.org]

          In short antifog coatings create the very surface you don't believe exists.

          • Indeed, any surface that is more hydrophilic than water will pull the water (pull it harder than the water pulls itself) into a thin film. That being said, I don't believe human skin meets this requirement. If water is forming a film over other non-skin surfaces, it doesn't pose much of a choking hazard.
      • You can easily imagine a scenario where you run out of air in your lungs as the bubbles keep floating in front of your face in the helmet.

        Google tells me that the average lung holds 6.3 quarts. Judging by how unpleasant half a sipful of water inhaled can be, that sounds literally like torture, but is 1.5 quarts enough to drown in? I guess this probably hasn't been tested in microgravity...

        • by sjames (1099)

          If, due to surface tension, that 1.5 quarts forms a skin over the entire internal surface of the lungs, it's probably more than enough to drown in.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Water acts a bit odd in low gravity situations. It was sticking to the helmet, and since he couldn't use his hands to guide the water to his mouth, it'd be very difficult to drink most of the water.

      Ha, captcha is "gravity."

    • Water would float around and collect in blobs. There's no gravity after all. If anything, this would feel a lot like waterboarding; or so I would imagine. Not enough to kill you, but make you feel like you're drowning.

      • Just thinking about it makes me feel short of breath. I can imagine wanting to blast it away from your mouth by forcefully exhaling, but not having enough air in your lungs to do it.

    • by wjcofkc (964165)
      Hydrogen bonds causes water to behave very different in micro and zero gravity. What you propose may make sense under Earth gravity, but not in orbit.

      Article and video on Live Science [livescience.com]

      Fun youtube video [google.com]

      If you find that at all interesting you should look up how fire behaves in space.
    • Couldn't he have, you know, drank the water that was building up?

      At the time, he was assuming it to be water. What if it was a toxic liquid? He had no way to confirm the identity of the liquid while outside the ISS.

      • I mean, I'll speak for myself, but if I were on the verge of drowning in space, I'd probably take my chances gulping down the liquid, even if it meant I'd have to vomit it back up once out of the suit.
  • Rodney McKay would have had this problem solved already.
  • 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 phayes (202222)

      Apollo 13 came perilously close to killing astronauts while neither taking off/landing...

      • by gman003 (1693318)

        "Perilously close" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

        However, Soyuz 11 killed all on board via decompression after undocking from Salyut 1, making them the only casualties to actually occur in space - and even then one could argue that they were beginning the "descent" phase, although that argument would rely on a very loose definition.

        • by phayes (202222)

          Close also applies to nuclear weapons and the version of that saying I most commonly see includes them as well.

          If you loosen the rules to exclude Apollo 13 because it was only close to killing off the crew (yhough Lovell, Swigert & Haise would probably disagree) then I rule out Soyuz 11 as the accident only occurred once they began descent.

          Neither of us mentioned the potentially fatal accidents the Russians had on Mir: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M... [wikipedia.org]

    • by akozakie (633875)

      Safe, perhaps. However, given the risks of decompression, heating malfunction, fire, explosion and plenty of other things that can go wrong in space, seeing an entry like:

      Occupation: Astronaut
      Place of death: Earth orbit
      Cause of death: Drowning

      out of context would probably be one of the most memorable WTF moments in my life. Yes, drowning is one of the risks for an astronaut, accidents during underwater training or after a wet landing are certainly possible... But in orbit?!? That's like getting mauled by a

    • by djlemma (1053860)
      The Soyuz 11 [wikipedia.org] cosmonauts died in space. A valve was damaged and their capsule depressurized when they were 104 miles up. Their capsule re-entered normally and when the recovery team opened it up, 3 asphyxiated cosmonauts inside.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    What is a quart?

    • Five nicks or twenty-five penns. Also, one fourth of a doll.

    • 1 Quart equals 0.0040 hogsheads

    • by PPH (736903)
      LMGTFY [google.com]
    • by Wookact (2804191)
      A quart is approx a liter.
      If you must be pedantic, and someone will 1qt = 0.94635L
      But for small amounts of liquid like in this story it is acceptable to just mentally translate quart to liter.
    • by tomhath (637240)
      Roughly .000004 Olympic Sized Swimming Pools.
    • by Joce640k (829181)

      What is a quart?

      0.000254 libraries of congress I believe.

      In other words, 0.037 football fields.

  • 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.

  • normal deviants (Score:5, Interesting)

    by minstrelmike (1602771) on Friday February 28, 2014 @11:15AM (#46367511)
    "normalization of deviance" is what caused the problems. I can see fundamentalists having a field day with that one.

    Actually looking directly at the problem is the only way to fix it ultimately.
    I like Bob Lewis' take on investigations in a blog he wrote about NASA vs other government Agencies.
    http://www.issurvivor.com/shop... [issurvivor.com]
  • 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 "the

    • by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater@g[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> 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.

    • So, you're saying that engineers trying earnestly to do things right are being stifled by management? I don't think this problem is exclusive to NASA.
    • So, how often did engineers say "there's a problem we need to fix" compared to the times there was a real problem? It could be that NASA just had anxious engineers who provided little insight into whether there really was a problem.

  • '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.'

    I must go now as I can no longer breathe, yours sincerely, astronaut dude.

    Reminds me of Eddie Izzard's take on Pliny the Elder's letters from Pompeii.

    Dear friends,

    Fookin' top's come off the mountain! Ahhhh! Send ships and big ships, send ducks, send anything!

    Love and kisses,

    Pliny the Elder

    • by X0563511 (793323)

      Well, there's a momentary release valve. It would have dumped his suit pressure when activated, which would have ejected the water. Not a pleasant process, but it's not like he would have to take the helmet off...

  • It seems like at least one option would've been to unseal the helmet and open it just enough to suck the air out of the suit - which hopefully would dislodge the water, or freeze it, which would give some time to fix the ice build up.

    • The article summary has a link to Parmitano's blog [esa.int] in which he mentions your solution: "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."
  • That would be a horrible way to die.

  • by peter303 (12292) on Friday February 28, 2014 @12:19PM (#46368007)
    Due to surface tension, water will flow along and hug a surface unless disrupted. So it does not have to fill the helmet, but just start crawling along the face into the nose and mouth. I've seen the micro-gravity video of someone slowly squeeze a water-full washcloth and the sheet of water crawl up his arm.
  • by bmajik (96670)

    There's a new one for your nightmares.

    Drowning in a thin-sheet of zero gravity water that slowly crawls over your head and face, that you cannot wipe away because you're wearing a space suit, that you cannot take off, because you are floating in space.

    It's like something from fear factor. Imagine getting into a coffin with a window over your face, and you cannot move your arms/legs. And then you realize the coffin is full of tarantulas... because you feel them crawling up your body towards your face....

    Th

  • Obviously NASA thought the astronauts knew more than they were saying. This is just a conspiracy to cover up their interrogation technique.
  • NASA officials are not planning on resuming non-urgent spacewalks before addressing all 16 of the highest priority suggestions from the Mishap Investigation Board.

    According to J, a member of the MIB, those spacesuits are old and busted.

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