NASA astronauts are getting ready to spacewalk once again. The space agency put a hold on the extravehicular activities while it investigated a potentially life-threatening problem with the suits, but NASA says spacewalks outside the International Space Station can resume.
On Tuesday, NASA announced that it completed an investigation into the cause of a moisture layer building up inside the helmets of astronauts during spacewalks. The flight readiness review confirmed that there were no hardware failures within the spacesuits, and that 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 explained.
Upon the implementation of several fixes, NASA scheduled three upcoming spacewalks to finish solar array installations outside the ISS. The first of the three spacewalks will take place around mid-November, according to NASA.
The last spacewalk before the pause took place on March 23, when European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer noticed some water inside his visor. The astronaut took photos for the ground control team to analyse, but the space agency said the issue posed no threat to Maurer’s life at the time. Maurer and NASA astronaut Raja Chari were able to finish their seven-hour spacewalk outside the orbiting station, preparing the installation of the iROSA solar array.
NASA later declared the incident as a “close-call” and immediately halted all upcoming spacewalks until the issue was investigated. The spacesuit Maurer wore at the time was returned to Earth, along with water samples, for analysis. “During the investigation, the space station team completed a detailed test, teardown, and evaluation of the water samples and suit hardware to determine what led to the observed water, which was more than normal, in the helmet,” NASA wrote in the statement.
Based on its findings, the team updated operational procedures and set up new mitigation hardware to avoid water building up inside the helmet, as well as the absorption of any water that may leak in.
The latest incident wasn’t the first time astronauts discovered water inside their helmets while performing maintenance work outside the ISS. Back in 2013, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano noticed a water leak inside his helmet that forced an early wrap-up to the spacewalk. Parmitano was able to re-enter the ISS airlock safely, but he had been having difficulty breathing as 1.5 litres of water had formed inside his helmet.
The same spacesuit was used by another astronaut two years later — and it nearly drowned him in space. After completing a spacewalk, NASA astronaut Terry Virts noticed free-floating droplets of water and a damp absorption pad in his helmet.
The spacesuits being donned by astronauts on board the ISS are more than 40 years old, and only 18 usable spacesuits are on the orbiting space station today, according to a 2017 report.
NASA began developing new spacesuits in 2019 for astronauts to wear outside the ISS and for the agency’s upcoming Artemis missions to the Moon, but funding shortages have delayed the suits’ deployment. Instead, the space agency recently partnered with two private U.S. companies, Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace, to develop its next generation spacesuits. However, the new spacesuits won’t be ready before 2025. In the meantime, astronauts will be forced to don the same spacesuits and perhaps be on the lookout for water droplets inside their helmets.
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