Spacewalk Mishap Tied to Clogged Helmet Filter

Water-filled helmet from NASA accident investigation report. Credit: NASA

An International Space Station mishap that nearly killed an astronaut last year happened because of a clogged spacesuit filter, a NASA investigation board said on Wednesday. The report also pointed to mission controllers not adequately investigating earlier signs of the problem.

On July 16, 2013, during a two-man spacewalk, Italy’s Luca Parmitano reported that water was leaking into his space helmet. As he returned to the space station, the water reached his nose, threatening him with drowning in space. Afterward, it emerged that the astronaut had endured “impaired visibility and breathing with water covering his eyes, nose, and ears” during the spacewalk, according to the report.

“It was determined that there was 1.5 liters of water inside the helmet,” says investigation report chief Chris Hansen of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, speaking at a briefing on the newly released report. Parmitano’s “calm demeanor in the face of his helmet filling with water possibly saved his life,” the report said.

The investigation shows that a clogged cooling system filter inside the helmet backed up water into the space suit’s breathing system. The source of the particles that gummed up the filter is still under investigation.

An earlier leak had been misdiagnosed as a leaking drinking-water bag, which contributed to mission controllers missing the problem until it turned serious. Pressure to perform science tasks on the station “was leading team members to feel that requesting on-orbit time for anything non-science related was likely to be denied,” which may have hindered astronauts from looking harder at the problem.

The report calls for a thorough review of the space suit and for establishment of procedures to more directly address any performance problems.

“This was a high-visibility close call,” said NASA’s human exploration chief William Gerstenmaier. “It merited an overall agency review.” He called the 220-page accident report “very thorough” and said that both he and NASA administrator (and former astronaut) Charles Bolden would endorse the report and its recommendations.

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