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Danger on the ISS: When spacewalks go wrong

For ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano, who served aboard the ISS from May to November 2013, the thrill of going to space was like nothing he’d ever experienced before. But on June 16 he nearly became the 22nd person to die during a space mission when a routine EVA went drastically wrong. Luca shares his experience in this first person account, given to our sister magazine, All About Space.

 

Date: 01-25-13 Location: Bldg 8, Studio Subject: Official Astronaut EMU Portrait of ESA Astronaut Luca Parmitano Photographer: James Blair
Luca Parmitano is an Italian engineer and astronaut in the European Astronaut Corps

“I was out around 45 minutes or an hour into my second spacewalk, when I felt water on the back of my head. At the time Chris [Cassidy] and I had no idea what was happening. Let me tell you the last thing you want to do is stop the activity that is so important and so expensive and involves so many people as an EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity). As we were waiting for advice [from Houston] I realised it wasn’t going to get better. I felt more water crawling through the back of my head over my communications cap and at that moment I felt this was going to be a nuisance for sure and it may turn into a bigger problem. That’s when we all decided, with concurrence on the ground, that it was time to go back inside. The ground called for a terminate, which is a soft word for stopping EVA – just put everything back in good condition and go back inside – as opposed to an abort, which is when you leave everything as is and you go back inside and depressurise as fast as you can.

I realised it wasn’t going to get better. I felt more water crawling through the back of my head over my communications cap

I had to go back to the airlock one way and Chris had to go back a different way because of the way we were routed. Now the part that became interesting, so to speak, was maybe a minute or two later. I was about halfway to the airlock when the Sun set. When I say the Sun set, you have to imagine an orbital sunset. It’s different than Earth. You have light, now you don’t. When you don’t have light in orbit it’s the absolute absence of light, it’s a black like nothing you can experience when back on Earth.
The light coming from my helmet could only illuminate a circle of light about 30 centimetres (one foot) wide. At the same time the water covered my eyes and nose, so I was isolated in the sense that I couldn’t really see well enough to navigate my own way back. I was also upside down and I had to manoeuvre myself around a no-touch zone, which is a zone that is either dangerous or you could damage some important equipment.

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano emerges from the Quest airlock to begin his turbulent second EVA
ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano emerges from the Quest airlock to begin his turbulent second EVA

 

….the water covered my eyes and nose, so I was isolated in the sense that I couldn’t really see well enough to navigate my own way back.

So, I was upside down with no light, no eyesight because my eyes were covered, I had water in my nose. I tried to call the ground and Chris, but neither one could hear me due to water or because of the sheer geometry of the station. That’s when I had to make a very quick decision either to wait there or try to go back however I could. In a split second I came up with a decision and a plan to move and do whatever I could. I moved and decided to try to use my own capabilities to get back. About five minutes later I was back at the airlock.

Chris arrived right away and we went inside. Chris closed the hatch and we repressurised. As soon as Karen [Nyberg] started repressurising I couldn’t hear anything, so the ground was calling me, Chris was calling me, but I couldn’t hear. It was pretty miserable. Water was inside my ears, inside my nose, all over my eyes, so I didn’t want to move. The next thing I knew Chris was squeezing my hand trying to get a response and my response was to squeeze as hard as I could to give him the okay.  After everyone else repressurised they opened the hatch and I saw a very worried group, Fyodor [Yurchikhin] and Karen, who quickly hurried me out of the airlock to take my helmet off and that was the end of it.”

Parmitano later returned to Earth on 11 November 2013 aboard Soyuz TMA-09M and remains the youngest astronaut to undertake a long-duration mission at 36 years and eight months on the day of launch.

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  • mesonw

    Amazing control exhibited there in not panicking.