“Space is a harsh, inhospitable frontier and we are explorers, not colonizers” — these are the words written by Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano about his experience of almost drowning in space on July 16, 2013 when his space suit developed a leak.
Parmitano, an Italian astronaut from the European Space Agency (ESA), embarked on a spacewalk mission last month accompanied by NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy. The two men were tasked with preparing for the attachment of a new Russian module on the International Space Station (ISS). However, the spacewalk ended just an hour after it began when Parmitano’s helmet began to fill with liquid.
Parmitano’s experience outside in the abyss was very limited, only having performed his first spacewalk a few weeks earlier. On July 9, he became the first Italian to step out into the blackness of space. During this first experience, he had a complication with an antifogging agent that had evaporated and irritated his eyes, but this was nothing compared to the eery feeling he was to experience a week later.
After Parmitano exited the space station’s airlock on the July 16 spacewalk, things were going according to plan as he made his way towards the back of the ISS.
“It is pitch black outside, not the color black but rather a complete absence of light. I drink in the sight as I lean out to attach our safety cables. I feel completely at ease as I twist my body to let Chris go by,” the astronaut wrote in his ESA blog.
Luca said he was running about 40 minutes ahead of schedule, and was about to start uncoiling a cable when he felt “something is wrong.” The astronaut felt a cold drip of liquid on the back of his neck that he said was too cold to be sweat.
After he gathered up the courage, Parmitano informed NASA of what he could feel, and awaited further instructions about whether to continue with the mission. Cassidy began to make his way towards Luca to determine what the source of the water was.
“At first, we’re both convinced that it must be drinking water from my flask that has leaked out through the straw, or else it’s sweat,” Parmitano wrote. “I can’t see any liquid coming out of the drinking water valve either. When I inform Chris and Shane of this, we immediately receive the order to ‘terminate’ the sortie.”
The astronaut began to make his trek back to the airlock, but found that his trip back would not be as easy as it was when he left earlier. He said he could feel that the water was increasing, and it started covering the sponge on his earphones, beginning to affect the communication system inside his helmet. After this, the water crept its way towards the front, almost completely covering his visor and obscuring his vision.
“At that moment, as I turn ‘upside-down’, two things happen: the Sun sets, and my ability to see – already compromised by the water – completely vanishes, making my eyes useless; but worse than that, the water covers my nose – a really awful sensation that I make worse by my vain attempts to move the water by shaking my head,” the astronaut said.
He said at that moment, the upper part of his helmet was full of water, and he wasn’t even sure whether his next breath would be air or liquid. Luca had to rely on his instincts to find the safety cable, which he followed towards the airlock.
“Finally, with a huge sense of relief, I peer through the curtain of water before my eyes and make out the thermal cover of the airlock: just a little further, and I’ll be safe,” Parmitano thought.
Luca sat and patiently waited for Chris while his helmet continued to fill with liquid. After what probably seemed like eternity, Parmitano finally saw Chris moving behind him to close the airlock for repressurization.
“The minutes of repressurization crawl by and finally, with an unexpected wave of relief, I see the internal door open and the whole team assembled there ready to help. They pull me out and as quickly as possible, [Karen Nyberg] unfastens my helmet and carefully lifts it over my head,” the astronaut wrote. “The skills of our engineers and the technology surrounding us make things appear simple when they are not, and perhaps we forget this sometimes. Better not to forget.”