An astronaut spacewalking outside the International Space Station had to cut his spacewalk short after he suffered a malfunction that NASA says it has never seen before: His helmet had started filling with water. While NASA engineers have not yet determined exactly how this malfunction happened, one NASA astronaut who was on the same space-walk exercise has come up with his own explanation and publicized it in a video.
The leakage had occurred to Luca Parmitano, an Italian astronaut sent to the ISS by the European Space Agency, during a July 16 exercise. He and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy were 1.5 hours into what was supposed to be a 6.5-hour spacewalk when Parmitano reported via the intercom that his head suddenly felt very wet.
The team promptly called off the exercise and told him to return inside, but it was already nearly too late. The water had engulfed much of the helmet, submerged his ears and nose, and lapped at his eyes. He could no longer speak or hear, could just barely see, and reportedly found his way back to the space station just “from memory.” By the time he had climbed back into the ISS, there were 2 to 3 pints (1 to 1.5 liters) of water leakage.
The water appears to have sprung from a break in the space suit’s coolant system, according to Cassidy, who shot a video from aboard the ISS in which he discussed what may have gone wrong in his partner’s space suit.
The water had seeped into the ventilation system, and from there into the helmet through a small portal in the back of the helmet that conveys air. The water mixed with the incoming air and formed bubbles until there was enough of it to flood his helmet.
“It saturated his communication cap, and capillary flow just sort of brought the water all around his head. Water filled around his ear cups and creeped around his eyes and covered his nose. Scary situation,” Cassidy said in the video.
Cassidy offered what help he could to get Parmitano back to safety. The American astronaut also gives much credit in the video to the ground team, which conveyed directions to both men until they had safely taken cover back in the space station.
“The ground team worked really well to give us some direction and as a team we got everybody back and everything was fine,” Cassidy said. “If it had continued to leak some more, it would have been very serious.”
It was unknown if they would reschedule the space walk, Cassidy also said. But Parmitano does have this consolation: He had made one successful space walk a week earlier and become the first Italian astronaut in history to do so.