NASA OKs spacewalks, upgrades helmets after fishbowl mishap

Changes follow astronaut's headgear filling with water during seven-hour star trek

Spacewalks outside the International Space Station are set to resume after NASA temporarily paused all such activity to investigate an issue that caused water to accumulate in one astronaut's helmet.

On March 23, Matthias Maurer, a European Space Agency 'naut, stepped outside the orbiting science lab for nearly seven hours with NASA teammate Raja Churi to prepare for the installation of a solar array for the station's microgravity hub. When Maurer returned inside, fellow Expedition 66 crewmate Kayla Barron reported to mission control the visor of the Euro spaceman's helmet was slick with water and hurried to help get him out of his spacesuit.

Although Maurer was not in immediate danger, NASA officials said the snafu was a "close call" and decided to halt all planned spacewalks. His spacesuit, helmet, and water samples were returned to Earth for study in hope of figuring out why moisture accumulated during the spacewalk. 

Seven months on, the American space agency has confirmed there were no hardware failures within Maurer's spacesuit. Astronauts will be allowed to conduct spacewalks again.

"The cause for the water in the helmet was likely due to integrated system performance where several variables such as crew exertion and crew cooling settings led to the generation of comparatively larger than normal amounts of condensation within the system," NASA said this week.

Engineers have developed hardware to prevent moisture from condensing inside the helmet's surfaces, and to absorb water in the event of buildup. Astronauts have also updated operating procedures to minimize risks during future spacewalks.

"Crew safety is the top priority of NASA and our international partners," said Kathryn Lueders, associate administrator for NASA's Space Operations Mission Directorate. "I'm proud of the space station and ground teams' work to keep our crew members safe, for taking the time necessary to close out the investigation, and for continually finding ways to mitigate risks in human spaceflight."

A similar incident occurred back in 2013 when astronaut Luca Parmitano was forced to terminate a spacewalk after nearly 1.5 litres of water accumulated inside his spacesuit and helmet. Parmitano reported it was difficult to see, hear or breathe – water was in his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. He reported that he found his way back to the crew hatch "from memory" – because astronauts are total bad asses. An investigation showed the leak was due to a blocked filter. ®

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