Human spaceflight today holds as many risks for astronauts as it did half a century ago during the Apollo program. The European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, and the Russian space agency all know the high-risk nature of human spaceflight. Extraordinary measures are taken to train their men and women to deal with practically any possibility during Earth orbit. Sometimes, even that is not enough.

On July 16, 2013, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano suited up for an EVA to perform work outside the International Space Station. Strict protocols were followed to ensure the astronauts, their EVA suits and their related equipment were ready. On this EVA, however, things would go dangerously wrong.

The Ever-present Danger

The two astronauts exited the airlock and proceeded to work their way to the area of the ISS where they were to perform their work. About an hour into the EVA, Parmitano felt cold water on the back of his neck. He reported this to NASA Mission Control. Cassidy listens to the communication, and immediately works his way over to his follow astronaut’s position. Mission Control asks Parmitano if he can identify the source of the water, but he is not sure. He reports the water inside his helmet is increasing, and Mission Control terminates the EVA and directs the astronauts to get back to the airlock.

“As I move back along my route towards the airlock,” Parmitano later wrote, “I become more and more certain that the water is increasing. I feel it covering the sponge on my earphones and I wonder whether I’ll lose audio contact. The water has also almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision.”

As Parmitano is nearing the airlock, he has to reorient himself. As this moment, the Sun “sets”, going behind the Earth and plunging everything into darkness. The astronaut cannot see anything now, and is going by the sensation he feels through his gloves.

Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano. (photo: ESA)

“By now, the upper part of the helmet is full of water and I can’t even be sure that the next time I breath I will fill my lungs with air and not liquid.” Parmitano is now disoriented, unable to get any visual cues as to which way he should go to the airlock. He can barely hear the communication going on between Cassidy and Mission Control. However, he remains calm, and keeps talking, hoping they can hear him.

Parmitano remembers he is wearing the recoil cable that keeps him tethered that runs back to the airlock. He follows this cable, and Cassidy provides assistance as best he can. Finally, Parmitano can make out the lit up airlock through the distorted view of his visor. The airlock door opens and he pulls himself in, followed by Cassidy. Seconds seem like minutes as the airlock closes and starts repressurizing.  Water continues to flow into the helmet.

Finally, the hatch door between the airlock and the space station opens and the fellow astronauts come in, take off the gloves and finally the helmet, as Parmitano sputters from ingesting the water. Still, Parmitano remained unflappable and actually smiled at his fellow crew members. This close call harkened back to another EVA during the Gemini program, which Capt. Eugene Cernan recorded in his book, The Last Man on the Moon.

NASA’s EVA 23 Investigation Report

As it always does, NASA initiated an investigation into the EVA suit failure that put the astronaut’s life at risk.  NASA’s Mishap Investigation Report into the episode was directed by Chris Hansen.

“I would say of all the EVA issue we’ve encountered to date, this is probably the most serious…” Hansen stated. “I don’t know of any other failures that have had this potential hazard associated with them.” The report stated emphatically that Parmitano’s cool presence of mind during the entire ordeal helped to save his life.

Anthony Young ©Personal Spaceflight Advisors LLC
direct email: anthonyhyoung@gmail.com