Many things can go wrong on a spacewalk, but you might never have thought that drowning would be one of them until now.
Last month, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano was in the midst of his second spacewalk at the International Space Station (ISS) when he felt water on the back of his neck. According to Parmitano, at first he thought the water must have leaked from the straw attached to his drinking water flask, but then it just kept coming, and soon he was in trouble. The water swirled around the inside of his helmet, blocking his vision, and then things got worse.
"But worse than that, the water covers my nose – a really awful sensation that I make worse by my vain attempts to move the water by shaking my head," Parmitano wrote on his blog this week. "By now, the upper part of the helmet is full of water and I can't even be sure that the next time I breathe I will fill my lungs with air and not liquid."
The water was soon in Parmitano's ears and interrupting his communication with his fellow astronauts, and the water in his eyes meant that he couldn't see how to get back to the ISS hatch.
"I'm alone. I frantically think of a plan. It's vital that I get inside as quickly as possible," he wrote.
Parmitano was able to use his safety cable to pull himself back toward the hatch, but it still didn't feel like a quick way out.
"I move for what seems like an eternity (but I know it’s just a few minutes). Finally, with a huge sense of relief, I peer through the curtain of water before my eyes and make out the thermal cover of the airlock: just a little further, and I’ll be safe."
Once in the airlock, Parmitano was able to give the universal OK sign to his fellow astronauts, knowing that if the water did become too much, he could simply open his helmet and risk losing consciousness in the repressurization process rather than drown inside his suit. Fortunately, the repressurization completed before he was overwhelmed, and Parmitano's comrades were able to get his helmet off quickly.
"They pull me out and as quickly as possible, Karen unfastens my helmet and carefully lifts it over my head. Fyodor and Pavel immediately pass me a towel and I thank them without hearing their words because my ears and nose will still be full of water for a few minutes more."
According to NASA, the water leak was caused by a problem in Parmitano's backpack, though they haven't been able to be more specific than that yet. The investigation into the incident is ongoing, and all NASA spacewalks are on hold until the agency figures out exactly what happened (though Russian cosmonauts will still conduct spacewalks at the ISS).
As for Parmitano, he'll be on the ISS until his mission ends in November, and he's viewing the near-drowning experience as a cautionary tale for all space explorers.
"Space is a harsh, inhospitable frontier and we are explorers, not colonisers," he wrote. "The skills of our engineers and the technology surrounding us make things appear simple when they are not, and perhaps we forget this sometimes. Better not to forget."
You can read Parmitano's complete account of the spacewalk over at his blog on the European Space Agency website.
(Via The Guardian)