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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Parmitano knew he should tell Houston. “Shane, FYI,” he called down, addressing Kimbrough, the astronaut capcom on the ground. An experienced spacewalker himself, Kimbrough had been guiding them through the details of the timeline. “I feel a lot of water on the back of my head,” Parmitano reported over the loop. “But I don’t think it’s leaked from my bag.”

Cassidy chimed in: “Are you sweating? You working hard?” From experience, he knew it was important to manage your exertion level on an EVA, to balance exhaled carbon dioxide with inhaled oxygen, keep your body temperature even, and generally try not to overtax the spacesuit’s closed ecosystem. As the lead spacewalker, he also was responsible for his buddy’s safety.

“I am sweating,” Parmitano answered, “but it feels like a lot of water. It’s not going anywhere, it’s just in my Snoopy cap.” He paused, not wanting to sound overly alarmed. In fact, he wasn’t. “Just FYI,” he added, and turned back to his work.

In mission control, Karina Eversley, positioned at a console behind Flight Director David Korth, sat up and took notice. As the lead EVA officer, she was Korth’s point person for anything related to the spacewalk. When she heard Parmitano mention water in the helmet, “immediately it made me think, That’s not normal.” Eversley got on the loop with her spacesuit expert, who was tied in to other engineers in Houston and at the spacesuit manufacturer. Together they worked up a list of questions for Kimbrough to call up to Parmitano. How much water exactly? Where was it coming from?

Inside the space station, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg also perked up at the first mention of water. She had no duties directly related to the EVA, so she’d been only half-listening to the chatter between the spacewalkers and the ground. After she’d put Cassidy and Parmitano in the airlock to go outside, she had returned to her sleep quarters to answer emails and make a few calls home. Now she started listening more intently to the conversation on the loop.

Cassidy, who’d finished up his work at the Rat’s Nest, traveled the 10 feet or so to where Parmitano was, partly to help with the reach test, but also to see how his partner was doing. He peered inside Parmitano’s helmet, and tapped the visor with his gloved finger. He could see the water, which looked to him like beads of sweat. “It’s not sweat,” said Parmitano. From the ground, Kimbrough asked if it was increasing. “It’s hard to tell, but it feels like a lot of water.” He drank a couple of the floating drops. They tasted awful, metallic—not at all like drinking water.

They continued to talk it over, both in space and on the ground. If the amount of water really was increasing, and it sounded like it was, they’d almost surely have to end the EVA. For Parmitano, it wasn’t a matter of safety—he wasn’t yet concerned about that—but efficiency. He couldn’t keep working like this.

While they were waiting for mission control to make a decision, he and Cassidy used the time to take pictures of each other. It was during this photo session that Parmitano started to appreciate how saturated his cloth Snoopy cap had become. He could feel the water all over his bald head, and strangely, it was cold, much colder than the drinking water.

Kimbrough came back on the line with mission control’s decision: The astronauts were to terminate the EVA and head back in. It wasn’t a full abort, in which “you stop what you’re doing and get your butt back to the airlock right now,” says Cassidy. This would be an orderly retreat. Cassidy would gather up their stuff and secure anything that needed to be secured; they would both head back to the airlock, some 90 feet away. But they would have to separate, since they’d arrived at this spot by different routes, from opposite sides of the Z1 Truss, and they didn’t want their tethers getting tangled.

Cassidy didn’t like having to split up, but there was no choice. “I remember looking at the backside of his spacesuit [as Parmitano turned to leave] and thinking Gosh, I wish I could be with him right now. That’s why we have buddies.” But he figured it would be just a few minutes before they were back together at the airlock.

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