NASA terminated a spacewalk outside the International Space Station (ISS) today due to a spacesuit malfunction with one of the American astronauts. NASA’s Timothy Kopra and British astronaut Timothy Peake were scheduled to complete a six-and-a-half-hour spacewalk to switch out an electrical component in the ISS’s solar power system.
The spacewalk had been underway for four hours and 43 minutes when Kopra reported water in his helmet. Kopra was able to move the water around to determine that it was about a half-inch wide and two or three inches long, didn’t taste like his own sweat, and was cold. NASA was concerned with the amount of water and the fact that it was cold because it indicated that the leak had come from the spacesuit’s cooling system, rather than from his sweat or drinking water.
When it comes to potential spacesuit leaks, NASA doesn’t take any chances. Back in 2013, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano experienced a severe water leak that caused one of the scariest close calls in NASA’s spacewalk history.
The leak in Parmitano’s helmet was so severe that floating water had covered his eyes, ears, nose, and part of his mouth. By restricting his air passages, Parmitano almost drowned before he had time to return to the station’s air lock.
After Parmitano’s close call, NASA takes any indication of a spacesuit leak very seriously. Astronauts are now required to conduct routine water checks inside their helmets during spacewalks. Although today’s water buildup was much smaller, it was enough of a concern to terminate the mission early.
Both astronauts were able to safely return to the airlock with 15 minutes. Luckily, by that time they had already accomplished the primary objective of the spacewalk by successfully restoring a lost power channel to normal operations. The astronauts were in the process of accomplishing secondary objectives when Kopra noticed the water in his helmet.
Today’s mishap is not likely to cause delays for the next spacewalk, scheduled for early February, which will be performed by Russian cosmonauts who wear a different type of spacesuit.
NASA’s next spacewalk was previously slated for later this spring. Unless NASA can come up with a solution to prevent future spacesuit leaks that date will likely get pushed back.
Since the 2013 incident, NASA had performed a detailed assessment of their spacesuit design to prevent similar malfunctions on future spacewalks. However, in February of 2015 NASA astronaut Terry Virts also reported a small amount of water floating in his helmet upon returning from his spacewalk.
Thankfully no astronauts were hurt and the primary mission of the spacewalk was completed, but today was certainly a small setback for NASA. The agency’s spacesuit engineers now have some serious homework to do in order to understand why these water leaks seem to continue to happen.