Astronauts Chris Cassidy and Luca Parmitano were about an hour into their 6½-hour spacewalk Tuesday when something went wrong.
Cassidy, who grew up in Maine, and Parmitano, who is from Italy, had to do a series of routine maintenance tasks and infrastructure improvements, working on the cables outside the International Space Station to prepare the station for a Russian research lab that will arrive later this year. It was their second spacewalk in eight days.
Parmitano was setting up an Internet cable when he noticed water accumulating in the helmet of his spacesuit. At first, he thought it was sweat, but the water kept accumulating. It threatened his hearing and his sight — two things you need when you’re walking in space.
NASA was alerted to the problem. Astronauts go through countless simulations and what-if scenarios long before they leave Earth’s atmosphere, so they are trained to handle just about anything. But this was something NASA hadn’t seen. The spacewalk was aborted about 25 minutes after Parmitano first reported the leak.
Cassidy calmly helped Parmitano back to the safety of the space station so his helmet could be removed before the liquid suffocated him. The Maine astronaut then cleaned up any work materials left behind before ducking back inside the space station himself.
It was the first time since NASA’s Gemini program in the 1960s that a spacewalker was so incapacitated.
Cassidy, 43, who was born in Salem, Mass., and grew up in Bath and then York, is no stranger to spacewalks – Tuesday’s was his sixth – or to stressful situations.
Before becoming an astronaut, the U.S. Naval Academy graduate spent 10 years as a Navy SEAL, including four six-month deployments, two of which took him to Afghanistan.
“Chris always tells people he’s an ordinary guy, but clearly he’s more than just ordinary,” said York High School Principal Robert Stevens, who knows Cassidy well. “(Astronauts) either have no nerves or nerves of steel. I’m not sure which fits Chris.”
Cassidy has been on the International Space Station since April. Recently, he dealt with a situation in which he and fellow astronaut Tom Marshburn made a hastily planned spacewalk to fix an ammonia leak.
NASA officials described the problem as a “serious situation,” but not a critical one.
NASA is still trying to figure out how water leaked into Parmitano’s helmet. The most likely scenario is that it came from his spacesuit’s cooling system.
“The team had a good plan going in; sometimes you have to adjust. This is one of those times,” Kenneth Todd, chairman of the mission management team, said in a media briefing Tuesday. “The number one objective is to get crew back safely … so from that standpoint, we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
“Clearly, we have a problem at this point that we don’t understand,” he said.
Joshua Byerly, public affairs officer for NASA, said Wednesday that the incident showed why NASA always deploys two-person teams on spacewalks. “It’s the buddy system,” he said.
Cassidy and Parmitano survived the scare unscathed, but NASA officials said it was a reminder that all spacewalks carry some risks for astronauts. In 2009, Cassidy had to cut short a spacewalk because of a potentially dangerous buildup of carbon dioxide in his suit.
Cassidy is in the middle of a six-month stay on the space station. He is due to return in mid-September.
Cassidy no longer lives in Maine, but his mother still lives in York and he returns periodically. A few years ago, he spoke at graduation at York High School, where he was a football star in the late 1980s.
Two weeks ago, Cassidy even participated in York’s Four on the 4th race, though he did it from space, not in person.
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