Astronaut's Near-Drowning Could Have Been Avoided
European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano, Expedition 36 flight engineer, is photographed here participating in the July 16, 2013, space station spacewalk. 45 minutes into the extra-vehicular activity, Parmitano reported water floating behind his head inside his helmet.
Nothing says “astronaut” quite like a spacesuit. Whether it’s the shiny aluminized nylon flight suits worn by the original Mercury Seven astronauts or the pressurized bright orange “pumpkin suits” worn by space shuttle crews, the clothes do make the man or the woman. It’s much more than a look; the suits could be the only thing that separates an astronaut from life or death in case of an emergency. Here’s a look at some spacesuits in NASA’s storerooms.
With the end of the space shuttle program, NASA began working on a spacesuit that astronauts could wear for forays into deep space, beyond where the space station flies. Last month, the agency awarded an 18-month, $4.4-million contract to ILC Dover to design, manufacture and test a new type of spacesuit called the Z-2. Pictured here is a predecessor prototype, the Z-1, which resembles something Buzz Lightyear might have in his closet. The design is intended to be more comfortable and more flexible for spacewalkers than the Extravehicular Mobility Units, or EMU, that spacewalkers wear today.
NASA looked to the U.S. Navy when it came time to design a spacesuit for its first group of astronauts, the Mercury Seven, pictured here, who were selected in 1959. The agency modified a version of high altitude jet aircraft pressure suit. Beneath the shiny layer of aluminized nylon is an inner layer of Neoprene-coated nylon.
It wasn’t enough to simply land on the moon. The Apollo astronauts were tasked to get out of their spaceship and walk around. Three crews even got to drive around in lunar rovers. Their spacesuits were the first to include a liquid-cooled inner garment and an outer layer to protect against micrometeoroid impacts. Pictured here is the iconic shot of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin taken by his crew mate and commander, Neil Armstrong.
NASA dropped pressurized flight suits for space shuttle crews after four test flights. When Vance Brand, Bob Overmyer, Joe Allen and Bill Lenoir blasted off aboard Columbia on Nov. 11, 1982, for the fifth shuttle mission they wore just blue flights suits with oxygen helmets.
After the 1986 shuttle Challenger accident, NASA beefed-up safety requirements, which included a redesign flight suit for astronauts to wear during launch and landing. The so-called “pumpkin suits” evolved into the Advanced Crew Escape Suit, pictured here. The full-pressure suit is based on U.S. Air Force high-altitude pressure suits worn by SR-71 Blackbird and U-2 spy plane pilots. It includes a parachute pack and harness, life raft, life preserver, gloves, oxygen manifolds and valves, boots and survival gear.
To protect astronauts working outside the shuttle or the space station, NASA developed the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or EMU. It’s more like a self-contained satellite than a spacesuit, offering spacewalkers environmental protection, life support and communications. The two-piece semi-rigid suit, which weighs about 300 pounds, is one of two kinds used on the space station today. The other is one-piece semi-rigid Russian Orlan suit. Astronaut Steve Robinson, attached to the Canadarm2 during STS-114 in 2005, is pictured here.
NASA has studied dozens of spacesuit designs over the years, including the AX-5, pictured here, which was developed at the Ames Research Center in California. The high-pressure suit uses hard metal and a composite rigid exoskeleton design.
Many old spacesuits end up in museums. But this decommissioned Russian Orlan suit took on a new life as a low-cost satellite. Dubbed SuitSat, the discarded spacesuit was filled with old clothes, outfitted with a radio transmitter and released into Earth orbit on Feb. 3, 2006. It was eventually pulled back into the atmosphere by the planet’s gravity and burned up.
The leaky spacesuit worn by Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano during a spacewalk last July had leaked a week earlier, a problem that NASA failed to correctly diagnose, a panel investigating the near-drowning has found.
Parmitano’s helmet began filling with water during a spacewalk outside the International Space Station on July 16. NASA hastily aborted the outing to prevent the astronaut from drowning.
But the spacesuit worn by Parmitano had actually leaked near the end of the astronaut’s first spacewalk on July 9, a report released Wednesday said.
Engineers misdiagnosed the suit failure when it initially occurred, the report said.
“Had the issue been discussed in more detail ... the team likely would have realized that the water experienced in (Parmitano’s) helmet was ‘out of family’ and needed to be investigated further.
“That investigation would have discovered this failure mode and (the next spacewalk) would have been postponed while the issue was resolved, thus preventing this mishap,” the report said.
Investigators credit Parmitano’s “calm demeanor” with possibly saving his life when up to 1.5 liters of water filled his helmet.
Water covered the astronaut’s eyes, nose and ears, impairing his breathing and vision. By the time Parmitano was helped into the airlock, he had lost audio communications as well.
Investigators ultimately traced the cause of the leak to blockage in a filter that is part of the spacesuit’s cooling system, a condition engineers did not realize could lead to a suit failure.
The source of the contamination remains under investigation.
The panel also found that teams were reluctant to cut in on the station crew’s science work for a more thorough questioning about the original water leak.
"I am especially concerned about cultural factors that may have contributed to the event," NASA administrator Charles Bolden wrote in an agency-wide letter released Wednesday.
“We have a responsibility not to move on from any abnormal situation until we understand it fully or have suitable mitigations to prevent it happening again,” he said.
“When things are going well, we kind of assume that things are OK and we just can press on. But this is telling us that our business is so demanding ... it requires us to all be on the top of our game,” added NASA spaceflight chief William Gerstenmaier.
“If there’s something that doesn’t look right, maybe by us bringing it up somebody else will think of it in a different way, and then through that we discover and understand something that was lurking under the system that we never envisioned occurring,” Gerstenmaier told reporters on a conference call.
The report includes 49 recommendations to improve communication and training and to help employees and contractors raise technical questions.
NASA said it will not schedule any more spacewalks until the panel’s recommendations are implemented.