August 27, 2013
It was fascinating watching space station astronauts re-create the recent water leak inside ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano’s helmet that cut short a planned spacewalk and led to some very tense moments for the crew.
Engineers are still trying to figure out what caused the leak. As today’s video shows, the suit still has a problem:
If you haven’t yet read Parmitano’s harrowing account of the incident, you should. Here’s an excerpt:
The water has…almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision….At that moment, as I turn ‘upside-down’, two things happen: the Sun sets, and my ability to see – already compromised by the water – completely vanishes, making my eyes useless; 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. 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. To make matters worse, I realise that I can’t even understand which direction I should head in to get back to the airlock. I can’t see more than a few centimetres in front of me, not even enough to make out the handles we use to move around the Station.
Parmitano’s ordeal reminded me of another incident, far less serious, that astronaut Carlos Noriega described in our 2002 book Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years. Even a single drop of water can be a hassle in a spacesuit.
Toward the end of my EVA on STS-97, about two-thirds of the way through deploying the space station’s new solar power array, I went to take a sip of water from a tube inside my helmet. It went down the wrong way, and I coughed. Well, the little droplet of water took a perfect trajectory from my mouth to the inside of the helmet, where it bounced off and went into my eye. We coat the inside of our helmets with a thin coat of soap so they don’t fog up. And the droplet picked up just enough soap that it severely irritated my eye, to the point where I couldn’t see out of it anymore.
I suspected what had happened, but I wasn’t sure. At the time, Mission Control was concerned that maybe it could be a break in the lithium hydroxide system that cleans the carbon dioxide from the air we breathe, or maybe something else floating around in my suit.
I felt fairly comfortable, other than the fact that my eye hurt like you wouldn’t believe. The bad thing about zero-g is that the tearing mechanism doesn’t do everything it’s supposed to. The droplet just stays there in your eye, and doesn’t run down your cheek. I thought about shaking my head, but then there’s the potential that you’re going to get it in the other eye. It took a long time to dilute, and by that point the EVA was over. I’m one of those people who’s very sensitive to irritants, and my wife just laughed later, “You and your eyes.”