Slightly spooky coming so soon after David Bowie’s death, and concerning after the near-death experience of Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, American astronaut Tim Kopra had a bit of a problem on his spacewalk.
But let’s back up for a moment. Today, the United Kingdom entered the elite club of nations who have had a spacewalker, as astronaut Tim Peake donned an Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) and exited the Quest airlock along with American Tim Kopra. Kopra was making his third EVA, while Peake was making his first, with the Union Jack on his shoulder:
As this was also the first time in history that both spacewalkers shared a first name, mission controllers referred to them by their full names. The primary objective was to replace a faulty power unit. The work had to be conducted during the 31 minutes of orbital night, so that the circuits in the solar arrays would not be energized. The two men accomplished the task with precision, replacing the bum unit with a spare they’d nicknamed “Dusty” in honor of its 17-year wait aboard the station before being called into service, but ran into a problem.
After the two men had stowed the faulty unit and were preparing to move on to their second task, Tim Kopra noticed water in his helmet, and realized that the absorbant pad in his helmet (added to all helmets as a safety measure after Parmitano’s close call) was damp. Of extra concern: the suit he was wearing was the exact one that had almost killed Parmitano. The suit had been repaired, and used on spacewalks since then without incident, but today was not so good a day. Kopra determined that the water was cold, and had formed a bubble about four inches long — fortunately, nowhere near the amount that had been in with Parmitano, and NASA flight controllers made the call to terminate. (“Terminate” means “put away your tools, and go back inside in an orderly fashion”. If it had been a more dire emergency, as it was with Parmitano, they would have ordered an “abort”, and had them return as quickly as possible.)
After getting the men back inside, the suits were examined. Peake’s suit was only slightly damp around the wrists, likely from sweat, while Kopra’s was very damp.
The fact that the suit is still malfunctioning is troubling. But the good news is that the safety measures added after the near-drowning a few years ago have definitely paid off. Kopra was able to detect the leak long before it was a serious threat, and had the emergency lasted longer, the suits are now equipped with a snorkel, allowing the astronauts to breath air in the suit’s torso even if the helmet is filling with water. And of course the primary objective of the spacewalk was completed, returning the station’s power supply to normal levels. But surely now NASA will be looking much harder at the suit, and perhaps the rest of the suit inventory as well.