The Spacewalk That Almost Killed Him

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

Luca Parmitano pauses outside the space station on his first spacewalk. A week later, things were a lot more hectic. (NASA/ESA )
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The youngest person ever assigned to a long-duration space station crew, Parmitano was 36 when he went to space. A former fighter pilot and test pilot in the Italian air force with 2,000 hours in 40 aircraft types, he also is an experienced scuba diver. Born in Sicily, he has an American wife and two young daughters. He is affable and well liked by the NASA astronauts.

By the time Parmitano arrived, last May 29, Cassidy was two months into his second space mission, with four EVAs already to his credit (counting the impromptu spacewalk with Marshburn to fix the ammonia leak). A former Navy SEAL with a master’s degree from MIT, Cassidy has a résumé that stands out even among uber-achieving astronauts. He led a SEAL team to the Zhawar Kili caves in Afghanistan immediately following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and has two Bronze Stars with a Combat “V.” For all that, there’s little swagger in him; his manner is fairly laid-back. Parmitano says of his EVA partner, “He moves in his spacesuit with an ease and efficiency that is just outstanding. If you watch him, you think This is easy, I can do that. Well, let me tell you, the environment we work in is incredibly harsh. It will kill you if you make mistakes.”

The two of them went outside together for the first time on July 9—a busy EVA to tend to several experiments, relocate some equipment, and do prep work—including routing power and data cables—for the arrival of a new Russian lab module. Everything went smoothly, with only minor problems like a stubborn bolt that took Cassidy a few tries to remove with his power tool. Before emerging from the airlock on his first spacewalk, Parmitano hadn’t been sure how he would react when he looked down at his own feet dangling over Earth 250 miles below. Nobody is sure ahead of time, and some astronauts feel a kind of vertigo and need a few moments to collect themselves before setting to work. But Parmitano loved his six hours outside from the first moment to the last.

A week later, on July 16, they went out again to wrap up some of the tasks from the first EVA and do other maintenance chores. Parmitano exited the airlock’s circular hatch first, hooked his and Cassidy’s 85-foot safety tethers to the station, grabbed a stowage bag full of supplies, and went to a spot not far from the airlock to work on the power and data cables. Cassidy moved along the station’s regularly spaced handrails to another location just above Parmitano—a jumble of cables, connectors, and plumbing lines outside a part of the station’s frame known as the Z1 Truss. Astronauts call this place the Rat’s Nest, and Cassidy set to work finishing up some electrical jumper connections left over from the week before.

Both jobs went faster than expected, and 45 minutes into the spacewalk, the astronauts were a good 40 minutes ahead of schedule. Parmitano had moved on to his next worksite, a crevice where three of the station’s cylindrical modules come together. Here the timeline called for a quick task: He was to reach his arm as far as possible into this tight spot to see how accessible it was, just in case future spacewalkers ever had to work back there.

Parmitano was in the middle of the reach test when he noticed what felt like water at the back of his neck. That was odd. His helmet had a small opening in the back, where breathing air from his suit’s backpack came in. But not water.

Being familiar with the suit design, he knew that water was constantly flowing through the spacesuit’s cooling system—narrow tubes sewn into his long underwear. But that liquid was completely contained, and the reservoir that fed it was deep inside his backpack. It couldn’t be that.

His mind went immediately to the drink bag on his chest. A weird thing had happened at the end of his spacewalk a week earlier. While they were repressurizing the airlock, returning it to a normal space station atmosphere after the air had been vented to match the vacuum outside, he and Cassidy noticed water droplets inside his helmet. At the time they figured his drink bag had leaked somehow. The astronauts talked it over with the ground, and as a precaution, replaced the drink bag in Parmitano’s suit. Could the replacement be acting up too? It didn’t seem likely.

Whatever the cause, “I thought this was really going to be a nuisance,” Parmitano recalls. The worst would be if the water shorted out the microphone or earphones in the “Snoopy cap” through which he talked to Cassidy and mission control. The mike was known to be sensitive to moisture, even sweat, and if the connection became fuzzy, mission control might cut off the spacewalk.

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