NASA oversight led to spacewalker's near drowning, panel finds

Wed Feb 26, 2014 7:24pm EST
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By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - A panel investigating an astronaut's near drowning during a spacewalk outside the International Space Station in July found that his spacesuit leaked during an earlier outing, officials said on Wednesday.

NASA misdiagnosed the earlier leak, believing the water found in the helmet of Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano on July 9 was due to a ruptured drink bag, said space station chief engineer Chris Hansen, who chaired an investigation panel appointed by the U.S. space agency.

"Had the issue been discussed in more detail ... the team likely would have realized that the water experienced in (Parmitano's) helmet was 'out of family' and needed to be investigated further," Hansen wrote in a report released on Wednesday.

Instead, a week later on July 16, Parmitano and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy put on their spacesuits to continue work outside the space station, a $100 billion research complex that flies about 260 miles above Earth.

About 45 minutes into the spacewalk, Parmitano radioed to ground controllers that water was leaking into his helmet.

Investigators said NASA did not immediately recognize the possibility that Parmitano's suit was failing.

Engineers mistakenly believed a water leak would trip a fan to shut down, signaling a suit problem. Instead, the fan remained operational despite water seeping its way around a valve and ultimately inside the spacewalker's helmet.

By the time flight controllers aborted the spacewalk, water obscured Parmitano's vision and impaired his breathing. As the astronaut made his way into the airlock, assisted by Cassidy, he lost radio communications as well.   Continued...

Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano attends a meeting with Prime Minister Enrico Letta (unseen) at Chigi palace in Rome, December 11, 2013. REUTERS/Remo Casilli