July 17, 2013

Maine astronaut's spacewalk cut short after partner's helmet scare

Chris Cassidy and another astronaut were performing some cable work and other maintenance chores when a helmet leak occurred.

The Associated Press

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This combination of 2013 file photos shows European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano of Italy, left, and U.S. astronaut Christopher Cassidy in the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. In one of the most harrowing spacewalks in decades, Parmitano had to rush back into the International Space Station on Tuesday, July 16, 2013 after a mysterious water leak inside his helmet robbed him of the ability to speak or hear and could have caused him to choke or even drown. His spacewalking partner, Cassidy, had to help him inside after NASA quickly aborted the spacewalk. (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel, Dmitry Lovetsky)

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In this screen image from NASA video, astronauts aboard the International Space Station examine the spacesuit that was worn by Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano during a spacewalk that was aborted on Tuesday.

Parmitano blinked hard several times but otherwise looked fine as he gestured with his hands to show his crewmates where the water had crept around his head.

Cassidy told Mission Control: "To him, the water clearly did not taste like our normal drinking water." A smiling Parmitano then chimed in: "Just so you know, I'm alive and I can answer those questions, too."

He later tweeted: "Thanks for all the positive thoughts!"

Mission Control praised the crew for its fast effort and hooked them up with flight surgeons on the ground. Engineers, meanwhile, scrambled to determine the source of the leak.

Spare spacesuits and equipment are on board for future NASA spacewalks.

The four remaining spacewalks planned for this year involve Russian astronauts wearing Russian suits, different than the U.S. models. They're preparing for the arrival later this year of a new Russian lab. The year's previous four spacewalks encountered no major snags. This was the 171st spacewalk in the 15-year history of the orbiting outpost.

There was no immediate word on when Tuesday's undone tasks might be attempted again. None of the chores was urgent, simply things that had piled up over the past couple years.

It was the fastest end to a spacewalk since 2004 when Russian and American spacewalkers were ordered back in by Mission Control outside Moscow because of spacesuit trouble. That spacewalk lasted a mere 14 minutes. Tuesday's spacewalk lasted one hour and 32 minutes.

During NASA's old shuttle program, spacewalks occasionally were stymied by stuck hatches and ripped gloves. By coincidence, Cassidy had to end a 2009 station-building spacewalk early because of a potentially dangerous buildup of carbon dioxide in his suit.

In 1966, two Gemini flights ended up with aborted spacewalks. Gemini 11 spacewalker Richard Gordon, was blinded by sweat. Gemini 9 spacewalker Gene Cernan breathed so heavily and sweated so much that fog collected inside his helmet visor and froze.

On the Russian side, the world's first spacewalker, Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, could barely get back into his spacecraft in 1965. He had to vent precious oxygen from his suit in order to fit through the hatch. Decades passed before his peril came to light.

This was the second spacewalk for Parmitano, a major with the Italian Air Force. He became the first Italian to conduct a spacewalk last Tuesday, six weeks after moving into the space station.

Cassidy, 43, a former Navy SEAL, is a six-time spacewalker. He's midway through a half-year station stint.

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