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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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  • 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?
  • 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.

  • 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. []
  • 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?

Perfection is acheived only on the point of collapse. - C. N. Parkinson