It may be time for NASA to ditch its aging spacesuits from the ISS. The space agency has announced a pause on all spacewalks until it gets a better handle on a persistent and frightening problem that is causing water to leak inside astronauts’ helmets.
The latest incident happened during an extravehicular activity (EVA) in March, but it’s not the first time a helmet has filled with water during a spacewalk. potentially life-threatening scenario for astronauts. NASA has raised concerns that aging spacesuits aboard the ISS may no longer be serviceable and that it may be time to swap them out for a newer model currently in development. The space suits that NASA use now are over 40 years old, and the agency appears to be running out of fully functional spacesuits; only 18 usable units are available on the ISS, according to a 2017 report.
The most recent water leak was on March 23 when NASA astronaut Raja Chari and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer were installing pipes on a radiator core valve module outside the space station. At the end of the seven-spacewalk for an hour, Maurer – who was venturing on his first spacewalk –noticed some water and moisture inside his visor. The astronaut took photos for the ground control team to analyze, but the space agency said the issue posed no threat to Maurer’s life.
At a meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Security Advisory Group last week, Susan Helms, a former NASA astronaut who serves on the group, mentioned that spacewalks are on hold for the space agency in light of the ongoing investigation into the water leak. “Because NASA is thinking about the risk posture of these suits, which are aging, the [spacesuit] is currently off limits to planned EVAs pending an investigation into what they find,” she said.
Dana Weigel, deputy director of the space station program at Johnson Space Center in Houston, later confirmed the agency was holding back spacewalks during a Tuesday briefing on the Next flight test of the Boeing CST-100. “We won’t do a planned EVA until we’ve had a chance to really address and rule out major system failure modes,” Weigel said. mentioned.
The suits can only be properly examined by engineers on Earth, so the agency plans to send them back on the next SpaceX cargo Dragon mission in early June. Until then, NASA will consider the risk of performing a spacewalk as opposed to the risk of ignoring a potential repair that may need to be performed outside of the space station. “We will have to look at risk versus risk,” Weigel said during the briefing.
The latest incident is part of a series of horrifying tales of astronauts discovering water leaks in their suits while floating in space. In 2013, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano noticed a water leak inside his helmet which forced an early conclusion to the spacewalk. Parmitano was able to enter the airlock of the ISS but had difficulty breathing because 1.5 literss of water had formed inside his helmet.
“I feel it covering the sponge of my headphones and I wonder if I’m going to lose audio contact. The water also almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision,” Parmitano shared in a chilling blog post later. “At that point, as I turn ‘upside down’, two things happen: the sun goes down and my ability to see – already compromised by the water – disappears completely, rendering my eyes useless; but worse than that, the water covers my nose.
This same spacesuit was used for a spacewalk two years later, and nearly drowned another astronaut in space. NASA astronaut Terry Virts put on spacesuit #3005 and after completing the spacewalk noticed free-floating water droplets and a moisture-absorbing pad in his helmet.
NASA unveiled shiny new spacesuits in 2019 for astronauts to wear outside the ISS and for the agency’s next Artemis Missions to the moon, but funding shortages have delayed the rollout of the suits. The lifetime of current spacesuits has therefore been extended to 2028. Given the situation with the water leaks, it’s unclear how NASA will handle future spacewalks.