Drowning in space

If you’ve ever doubted that spaceflight is dangerous, check out the extended account by Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano of his near-drowning during a spacewalk July 9. The guy’s in the virtual desert of space, where there’s no water, air, gravity or pressure to speak of, and through a mysterious failure in his EVA suit he finds himself getting smothered with water that is building up inside his helmet. Here’s a passage:

“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. I try to contact Chris and Shane: I listen as they talk to each other, but their voices are very faint now: I can hardly hear them and they can’t hear me. I’m alone. I frantically think of a plan. It’s vital that I get inside as quickly as possible. I know that if I stay where I am, Chris will come and get me, but how much time do I have? It’s impossible to know.”

Blind, unable to hear, alone, he figures out a solution to get himself back to the airlock. Check out the frantic efforts of his crewmates to get his helmet off — and look at the expression on his face at the very end of this clip. Way too much drama for a spacewalker.

When this happened, NASA issued the following press release:

“A little more than one hour into Tuesday’s spacewalk, Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency reported water floating behind his head inside his helmet. The water was not an immediate health hazard for Parmitano, but Mission Control decided to end the spacewalk early.”

Well, I guess that depends on what you mean by “immediate.” It’s true that the water in the helmet did not accumulate fast enough to drown him before he got back to the airlock. But from his own account, it sounds as though he might have had only minutes to spare. Moreover, he was doing something that is extremely delicate and potentially hazardous in even the best of circumstances — spacewalking. These maneuvers are practiced months in advance, with every movement carefully orchestrated to maximize safety and effectiveness. See this. Astronauts doing EVAs have to beware of sharp corners and anything else that might puncture their spacesuits.

NASA is very good at what it does, and that includes public relations. But I think the agency sometimes doesn’t tell its story as well as it might, and that includes downplaying hazards and mishaps and thereby draining some of the drama from what’s happening. There’s a stiff upper lip attitude, a message that says “We’ve got everything under control.” But people will understand, and appreciate, that complex systems are vulnerable in unexpected ways, and that it is not a sign of incompetence to have to scramble to avoid disaster.

There’s nothing routine about these operations. This is a high-wire act. Why not admit, right away, that the international space station and it’s astronaut from the European Space Agency almost had a fatal incident?

Luca Parmitano put it well in his blog:

“Space is a harsh, inhospitable frontier and we are explorers, not colonisers. 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.”

As noted in our big Mission Improbable story on Sunday, we’ll be taking another look at the space station in an upcoming article.

 

 

 

 

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