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Helmet water leak aborts spacewalk; astronaut okay

In this image from video made available by NASA, astronauts discuss the aborted spacewalk aboard the International Space Station on Tuesday, July 16, 2013. A dangerous water leak in the helmet of Luca Parmitano, bottom center facing camera in white suit, drenched his eyes, nose and mouth, preventing him from hearing or speaking as what should have been a routine spacewalk came to an abrupt end. (AP Photo/NASA)

In this image from video made available by NASA, astronauts discuss the aborted spacewalk aboard the International Space Station on Tuesday, July 16, 2013. A dangerous water leak in the helmet of Luca Parmitano, bottom center facing camera in white suit, drenched his eyes, nose and mouth, preventing him from hearing or speaking as what should have been a routine spacewalk came to an abrupt end. (AP Photo/NASA)

In one of the most harrowing spacewalks in decades, an astronaut had to rush back into the International Space Station yesterday after a mysterious water leak inside his helmet robbed him of the ability to speak or hear and could have caused him to choke or even drown.

Italian Luca Parmitano was reported to be fine after the dangerous episode, which might have been caused by a leak in the cooling system of his suit. His spacewalking partner, American Christopher Cassidy, had to help him inside after NASA quickly aborted the spacewalk.

No one – neither the astronauts in orbit nor flight controllers in Houston – breathed easy until Parmitano was back inside and his helmet was yanked off.

“He looks miserable. But okay,” Cassidy assured everyone.

It was the first time in years that a spacewalk came to such an abrupt halt and the first time since NASA’s Gemini program in the mid-1960s that a spacewalker became so incapacitated. Spacewalking always carries high risk; a puncture by a micrometeorite or sharp edge, if big enough, could result in instant death.

In a late afternoon news conference, NASA acknowledged the perilous situation that Parmitano had found himself in, and space station operations manager Kenneth Todd promised to “turn over every rock” to make sure it never happens again.

Spacewalking is dangerous already, noted flight director David Korth. Then on top of that, “go stick your head in a fishbowl and try to walk around. That’s not anything that you take lightly,” he said. “He did a great job of just keeping calm and cool” as the amount of water ominously increased.

The two astronauts were outside barely an hour, performing routine cable work on their second spacewalk in eight days, when Parmitano reported the leak. It progressively worsened as the minutes ticked by, drenching the back of his head, then his eyes, nose and, finally, mouth. He could have choked or drowned on the floating globs of water, NASA officials acknowledged.

Between 1 and 1½ liters of water leaked into his helmet and suit, NASA estimated.

The source of the leak wasn’t immediately known, but the main culprit appeared to be water that is piped through the long underwear worn under a spacesuit, for cooling. The system holds nearly 4 liters, or 1 gallon. Less likely was the 32-ounce (about 1 liter) drink bag that astronauts sip from during lengthy spacewalks; Parmitano reported the leaking water tasted odd.

His last words before becoming mum were: “It’s a lot of water.”

At first, Parmitano, 36, a former test pilot and Italy’s first spacewalker, thought it was sweat accumulating on the back of his bald head. But he was repeatedly assured it was not sweat. He agreed. “How much can I sweat?” he wondered aloud. It was only his second spacewalk.

The water eventually got into Parmitano’s eyes. That’s when NASA ordered the two men back inside. Then the water drenched his nose and mouth, and he had trouble hearing on the radio lines.

Cassidy quickly cleaned up the work site once Parmitano was back in the air lock, then followed him in.

The three Russians and one American who anxiously monitored the drama from inside hustled to remove Parmitano’s helmet. They clustered around him, eight hands pulling off his helmet and using towels to mop his head. Balls of water floated away.

Parmitano blinked hard several times but otherwise looked fine as he gestured with his hands to show his crewmates where the water had crept around his head.

Cassidy told Mission Control: “To him, the water clearly did not taste like our normal drinking water.” A smiling Parmitano then chimed in: “Just so you know, I’m alive and I can answer those questions, too.”

He later tweeted: “Thanks for all the positive thoughts!”

Mission Control praised the crew for its fast effort and hooked them up with flight surgeons on the ground. Engineers, meanwhile, scrambled to determine the source of the leak.

Spare spacesuits and equipment are on board for future NASA spacewalks.

The four remaining spacewalks planned for this year involve Russian astronauts wearing Russian suits, different than the U.S. models. They’re preparing for the arrival later this year of a new Russian lab. The year’s previous four spacewalks encountered no major snags. This was the 171st spacewalk in the 15-year history of the orbiting outpost.

This was the second spacewalk for Parmitano, a major with the Italian Air Force. He became the first Italian to conduct a spacewalk last Tuesday, six weeks after moving into the space station.

Cassidy, 43, a former Navy SEAL, is a six-time spacewalker. He’s midway through a half-year station stint.

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