Drama in orbit as water leak ends spacewalk

A spacewalk by two astronauts was abandoned today when one of them found his helmet was filling up with water.

Luca Parmitano recovers back inside the safety of the International Space Station, aided by Karen Nyberg
Luca Parmitano recovers back inside the safety of the International Space Station, aided by Karen Nyberg. Credit: NASA/ESA

Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano had to be rushed back inside the International Space Station as mission controllers feared he might drown.

Italian Luca, 36, stopped responding as NASA colleague Chris Cassidy struggled to help him back inside so that colleagues could remove his space helmet and suit before he faced the risk of death.

Space fans around the world watched open-mouthed as Chris asked Luca if he could hear and to squeeze his hand if he could, but got no response. One expert commentator on Twitter described it as the European Space Agency’s “Apollo 13” moment.

The spacewalk began when Luca and Chris left the hatch of the ISS’s Quest module to begin routine cable routing on the station’s infrastructure.

But after just over an hour, Luca reported that water was floating behind his head in his helmet. He later said it was getting in his eyes. He added that his drinking supply was empty, indicating a leak.

The spacewalk, which had been due to last 6.5 hours, was swiftly aborted on the orders of NASA Flight Director David Korth amid fears that, in weightlessness, Luca could inhale the water and drown in space. Luca headed back to the airlock ahead of NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy.

Back at the airlock, Luca said there was now a lot of water in his helmet. The inner hatch was finally re-opened about 40 minutes after the abort. There astronauts Karen Nyberg and cosmonauts Pavel Vinogradov and Fyodor Yurchikhin removed Parmitano’s helmet and mopped up the water with towels.

As Luca recovered, he reported that was having trouble seeing and hearing, but seemed to be in good spirits. The source of the leak is being investigated by engineers.

Luca is on his first space flight and arrived at the space station in May to begin a six month mission. Yesterday’s was only his second spacewalk and the second shortest in ISS history. Luca’s first was last Wednesday, again with Chris Cassidy.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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