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Luca Parmitano pauses outside the space station on his first spacewalk. A week later, things were a lot more hectic. (NASA/ESA )

The Spacewalk That Almost Killed Him

How Luca Parmitano survived the scariest wardrobe malfunction in NASA history.

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(Continued from page 4)

For Flight Director David Korth, 250 miles away in mission control, those last moments in the airlock were the worst. “Time really slowed down a lot at that point,” he says. They hadn’t heard from the distressed astronaut in many long minutes, and Korth was considering telling Nyberg to go to an emergency (much speeded up) repressurization and get Parmitano’s helmet off as quickly as possible. It would probably blow out his eardrums, but it might save his life.

Nyberg didn’t need to hear from the ground. She was having the same thoughts, and was on the verge of reaching for the valve. What stopped her was a simple human gesture: Parmitano squeezed Cassidy’s hand to signal that he was alright.

The two astronauts were crammed into the airlock head-to-foot, like a pair of shoes in a shoebox—the only way two people wearing bulky backpacks can fit in the tight space. Trying to see how Parmitano was doing at the other end, Cassidy had wiggled and contorted himself. “I wanted to see him. I wanted to look in his face.”

He could see that the water was over Parmitano’s eyes “and sort of bouncing around his nostrils. That’s when my senses really got heightened. So I grabbed his hand, just kind of squeezing it. He and I had never talked before that this would be our hand signal if we can’t talk. It just was a natural thing. I grabbed his hand and squeezed it. He squeezed it back, so I knew he was okay.”

Cassidy radioed to the ground. “He looks fine. He looks miserable, but okay.” They could all relax.

It was just a few minutes later that Fyodor Yurchikhin opened the inner hatch and Nyberg and the Russians pulled Parmitano inside, removed his helmet, and started toweling him off. They estimated later that they mopped up a quart and a half of water.

All Parmitano remembers saying is something like “Thanks, guys.”

***

Six months after the EVA, spacesuit engineers still didn’t know the exact cause of the leak, although they quickly discovered which part failed—a fan pump separator that has since been replaced on the suit Parmitano wore, and has already been used on a spacewalk without incident. The engineers also have added a snorkel-like breathing tube to the EVA helmet and spacesuit in case this ever happens again, and an absorbent pad around the top of the head. Lesson learned.

NASA spaceflight people have a euphemism to describe the many fatal accidents, known and unknown, that might conceivably befall them. With a kind of whistling-past-the-graveyard understatement, they call it “having a bad day.”

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