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How An Astronaut Nearly Drowned During a Space Walk 144

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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  • 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.

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

    by gerardrj ( 207690 ) on Friday February 28, 2014 @11:35AM (#46367673) Journal

    The liquid floating around in the helmet would have eventually drowned him. Doing nothing was 100% certain death; the liquid water was effectively toxic.
    Drinking the liquid (which may have been toxic) would have prevented the drowning and provided more time to evacuate him to the interior of ISS. If the liquid were poisonous, medical attention could then be rendered and an evacuation to Earth would be possible.

    This is similar to being stranded in the wild: it is always better to drink even smelly water than to die of dehydration. You will most likely be found and returned to civilization before any toxic effect or biological infection from the water you drink would cause any serious health risks. Not drinking could cause your death in a few hours, toxic water would usually take at least a few days to a week to kill you (if you remain untreated).

    This of course ignoring the entire question of HOW to drink the water.

    If I were NASA I'd take a two-step approach to the issue:

    1. Fix the damed leaks.
    2. Install a large hydroscopic surface area water/air separator inside the helmet with a straw within reach of the astronaut's mouth. In emergency you can breath through the straw.

    Regardless of this issue, it is apparent that the astronauts need an external "man down" signaling device they can activate from muscle memory. The device needs to alert on each of: the comms frequency, visually (flashing light) and on some other dedicated emergency radio frequency with detectors both within the station as well as on Earth.

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