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NASA admits astronaut's suit leaked the week before near-drowning during spacewalk

NASA admits astronaut's suit leaked the week before near-drowning during spacewalk


Agency acknowledges that information on prior incident never passed up the chain of command, according to ABC News report

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astronaut (wikimedia)
astronaut (wikimedia)

NASA today will admit that the near-death of an astronaut during a spacewalk last year could have been avoided, according to a report from ABC News. In a report to be released Wednesday morning, NASA will acknowledge that astronaut Luca Parmitano's suit leaked on two occasions in July. The agency had previously only reported one leak, on July 16th, when Parmitano's suit helmet began filling up with water. Today's report will acknowledge that the suit leaked on July 9th, but news of the mishap never made it up NASA's chain of command.

"It's a lot of water."

The accident came just one week after Parmitano became the first Italian to ever participate in a spacewalk, when he and American astronaut Chris Cassidy embarked on a mission to work on the International Space Station. Less than an hour into their July 16th outing, Parmitano's helmet began to fill up with several liters of water, and the walk was called off. As Parmitano later described, returning to the station nearly cost him his life, as water began blocking his eyes and mouth.

"It's a lot of water," Cassidy told mission control at the time. "His head is saturated, it’s in his eyes, as well as his nose and mouth … squeeze my hand if you're fine, Luca."

The design of the suits Cassidy and Parmitano were wearing is 35 years old, and scientists are looking to develop new ones. NASA will release its report at 11AM ET today, followed by a press conference at 2PM ET.

Update: In a report and press conference, NASA acknowledged that Parmitano's suit had in fact suffered the same issue during a spacewalk the week prior, but the leak was not identified as a problem at the time. In its inquiry into the incident, NASA points to a number of potential reasons for why staff and crew did not emphasize the leak as an issue and instead chalked it up to a problem with the suit's drink bag. The reasons it points to are largely quite simple, including its staff's impulse to maximize time dedicated to science endeavors and a general perception that drink bags tend to leak.

NASA skirted questions about how dangerous the leak actually was for Parmitano. It says that he and his partner were close to the airlock when the issue arose, however, and that it really only began to obscure his vision as neared the station.

The report identifies a number of recommendations for how NASA can avoid situations like this in the future. In many cases, they're merely managerial issues, stressing that teams should work better together and report any potential issues that they identify. For now though, the actual root cause of the leak still remains unknown. The agency has narrowed it down to a hardware failure with the suit's fan pump separator — some contamination was discovered to be preventing proper water flow, but NASA notes that the system is complex and the investigation is ongoing.

Jacob Kastrenakes contributed to this report.