A spacewalk outside the ISS was scrapped last month when flight engineer Luca Parmitano noticed a water leak inside his helmet. “My head is really wet and I have a feeling it’s increasing,” the Italian astronaut first told Johnson Space Center in Houston. Then things got much, much worse.
In a story that's chilling in its candid and straightforward telling, Parmitano has provided a personal account of the incident in a recent blog entry. This is a must-read. Below is an excerpt, but you'll want to head over to Parmitano's blog for the entire entry.
At this exact moment, just as I’m thinking about how to uncoil the cable neatly (it is moving around like a thing possessed in the weightlessness), I ‘feel’ that something is wrong. The unexpected sensation of water at the back of my neck surprises me – and I’m in a place where I’d rather not be surprised. I move my head from side to side, confirming my first impression, and with superhuman effort I force myself to inform Houston of what I can feel, knowing that it could signal the end of this EVA. On the ground, Shane confirms they have received my message and he asks me to await instructions. Chris, who has just finished, is still nearby and he moves towards me to see if he can see anything and identify the source of the water in my helmet.
As I move back along my route towards the airlock, I become more and more certain that the water is increasing. I feel it covering the sponge on my earphones and I wonder whether I’ll lose audio contact. The water has also almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision. I realise that to get over one of the antennae on my route I will have to move my body into a vertical position, also in order for my safety cable to rewind normally. At that moment, as I turn ‘upside-down’, two things happen: the Sun sets, and my ability to see – already compromised by the water – completely vanishes, making my eyes useless; but worse than that, the water covers my nose – a really awful sensation that I make worse by my vain attempts to move the water by shaking my head. 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.
It's important to remember that in the end, Parmitano's brush with disaster is as much a cautionary tale as it is a a tribute to the careful preparation of scientists and engineers both in space and on the ground.
"Space is a harsh, inhospitable frontier and we are explorers, not colonisers," he muses. "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."
Top image: a view of Earth, photographed by Parmitano himself from aboard the ISS back in June