After a spacewalk in mid-July was aborted due to a water leak inside International Space Station crew member Luca Parmitano’s spacesuit, NASA is forming a special board to examine the incident.
On July 16, Parmitano and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy went outside the space station to make preparations for the arrival of a Russian module destined for the ISS in 2014. Originally, the spacewalk was supposed to last for six and a half hours, but was cut short after an hour and half when water began leaking inside Parmitano’s helmet. In the zero-gravity environment, the water droplets clung to Parmitano’s face and head and interfered with his vision and hearing.
NASA is still investigating the cause of the leak, but there’s some speculation that the suit’s cooling system could be at fault. Universe Today noted that Parmitano told Cassidy the water inside his helmet “tasted really funny,” suggesting it came from the water that runs through the astronaut’s undergarments, which contains iodine. The space suit cooling system holds about 1 gallon of water, according to the Associated Press, while the bag of drinking water astronauts carry contains just about a quarter of a gallon.
The NASA board examining the incident will be led by ISS chief engineer Chris Hansen. Joining Hansen are astronaut Mike Forman, a veteran of two space shuttle missions; ISS safety lead Richard Fullerton; Sudhakar Rajula, human factors specialist at the Johnson Space Center; and Joe Pellicciotti, chief engineer at the NASA Engineering and Safety Center.
“The board's investigation will run parallel with the engineering analysis already underway,” NASA said in a press release on Tuesday. “The engineering team is focused on resolving equipment trouble in an effort to enable U.S. spacewalks to resume. The mishap investigation board will look more broadly at past operations and maintenance, quality assurance, aspects of flight control and other organizational factors.”
Spacewalk incidents are uncommon, but do happen. In 2004, astronaut Mike Fincke had to hustle back to the ISS after just 14 minutes outside when his oxygen supply began losing pressure. Further inspection showed that the toggle switch inside the suit that allowed Fincke to control the oxygen flow was not fully set to “off” before he exited the space station.
Cassidy himself suffered a setback in 2009 while he was out replacing solar batteries on the ISS. The device that scrubbed carbon dioxide from the air inside Cassidy’s spacesuit suffered a glitch. Flight controllers decided to call off the spacewalk when they noticed carbon dioxide levels rising inside the suit. The gas levels were well below the safety mark, and Cassidy felt no ill effects, but NASA doesn’t like to take chances.
“A spacesuit is a very small spacecraft and there’s just really not much margin for error,” NASA lead space station flight director Holly Ridings told reporters in 2009, according to Space.com.