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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Astronaut Describes Terrifying Spacesuit Problem That Cut Short a Spacewalk

By Phil Plait

On July 16, astronaut Luca Parmitano was doing an extravehicular activityâa spacewalkâoutside the International Space Station when a spacesuit malfunction cut the EVA short. Somehow, water used to cool the suit leaked into his air ventilation system, causing his helmet to start filling with water.

Parmitano was brought back inside safely, and NASA engineers are still investigating what happened. Fellow crewmember Chris Cassidy made a short video describing the incident, showing us the helmet and what happened:

Holy yikes, thatâs scary. Iâm glad Parmitano is OK, and I certainly hope they figure this out soon.

As bad as this was, it couldâve been a lot worse. Water behaves weirdly in space, where the force of gravity is almost negligible. Water collects into drops or balls because of the way the molecules attract each other, and it also sticks to surfaces where it can collect. Cassidy talks about how the water pooled on the curved plate behind Parmitanoâs head. Iâm guessing that as Parmitano moved his head around, the big blob of water broke up a bit, sending droplets around the helmet. He could have easily breathed those in, where he couldâve been sent into a coughing fit or even started choking.

This didnât happenâit was caught in time, with Parmitano and NASA engineers acting as the seasoned professionals they areâwhich is good news, but itâs a stark reminder that space travel is still difficult and dangerous. If it were easy, weâd have colonies on Mars by now. And even though, sometimes, NASA, the ESA, and other space agencies make it look easy, thatâs because of those trained professionals who dedicate their lives to it. But space travel is hard, itâs expensive, and it will never be entirely safe.

But I still maintain itâs something we must do. Exploration is in our genes, and I argue itâs part of what makes us human. It also can have huge payoffs, including material wealth as well as saving our species. Given that, the risk is worth it, when proper precautions are taken. Ask any astronaut, and I will guarantee theyâll agree.

Tip o' the gold visor to Geoff Brumfiel and Ian O'Neill.

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