Luca Parmitano
February 27, 2014

Astronaut Nearly Drowning In Space Could Have Been Prevented

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Last year, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Luca Parmitano nearly drowned in space due to a leaky helmet, and yesterday NASA said this isn’t the first time this suit model has misbehaved.

On July 16, 2013 two International Space Station crew members exited the US Airlock to begin a spacewalk. About 44 minutes into the spacewalk Parmitano reported water inside his helmet on the back of his head. Slowly the water began to fill up his helmet, and he was just moments away from actually drowning inside his own helmet while in space.

After this incident took place, NASA launched an investigation to help identify factors that may have contributed to the incident and it recommended changes that could be implemented to prevent it from happening again.

The investigation found that the same suit failure occurred a week earlier, and if this event was properly investigated it could have prevented Luca from being placed at risk the following week.

“In summary, the causes for this mishap evolved from inorganic materials causing blockage of the drum holes in the EMU water separator resulting in water spilling into the vent loop; the NASA team’s lack of knowledge regarding this particular failure mode; and misdiagnosis of this suit failure when it initially occurred on EVA 22,” NASA said in its report.

The space agency said the inorganic materials blocking the water separator drum holes had not been seen during a spacewalk before and is still undergoing investigation. It said the investigation does not have the required data yet to determine the root causes of the contamination source.

Essentially, when the helmet first messed up the team misdiagnosed the problem, allowing Luca to be put in a position where he used the helmet. NASA said that had the issue been discussed in more detail at the end of the spacewalk, the team would have likely realized that the water experienced in the helmet needed to be investigated further before pressing ahead.

“The MIB strongly believes that EVA crewmember 2 (Luca) and the flight control team performed well given what they knew at the time of this mishap,” NASA said. It added that Parmitano’s “calm demeanor in the face of his helmet filling with water possibly saved his life.”

NASA has created a list of recommendations that have already been implanted or are under discussion as a result of the event. These recommendations could be used to help prevent something like this from happening again.