Astronaut with flooded helmet felt like goldfish in bowl

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — An Italian astronaut who survived a close call during a spacewalk this week said Thursday that a dangerous water leak in his helmet rendered him all but deaf, dumb and blind for a time.

Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency said specialists still are trying to pinpoint the source of the leak, which started as a trickle but then began to fill his bubble-like helmet.

“I think for a couple of minutes there, maybe more than a couple of minutes, I experienced what it’s like to be a goldfish in a fish bowl from the point of view of the goldfish,” Parmitano said during a space-to-ground media interview.

He and U.S. astronaut Chris Cassidy were 30 to 45 minutes into a maintenance spacewalk outside the International Space Station when the leak started as a trickle of cold water on the back of his head.

Several minutes later, the water began to move around to the front of his helmet, and “then I felt the cold in my ears,” he said.

Alarmed, NASA Mission Control aborted the planned 6-hour, 15-minute spacewalk and ordered Parmitano and Cassidy to scramble back to the station’s U.S. Quest Airlock and relative safety inside the outpost.

But the tide inside Parmitano’s helmet continued to rise during their retreat.

“I started going back to the airlock, and the water kept trickling until it completely covered my nose,” he said.

That was bad news because water in a weightless environment tends to cling. So the water was adhering to his ears, nose and mouth.

“It was really hard to see. I couldn’t hear anything. It was really hard to communicate, so I went back to using memory, basically, going back to the airlock,” said Parmitano, 37. “I found it, and then went inside.”

Cassidy followed shortly thereafter, and an emergency suit-doffing drill followed. U.S. astronaut Karen Nyberg and two Russian cosmonauts — Pavel Vinogradov and Fyodor Yurchikhin — removed Parmitano’s helmet quickly and used towels to absorb free-floating water blobs.

“I knew it was time to end it when I saw the water creeping around his communications cap, kind of right by his eyelid, and I knew that was a significant amount of water to be in a helmet,” Cassidy said.

Engineers initially thought the leak came from Parmitano’s in-suit drinking water bag. Then scrutiny shifted to his form-fitting liquid-cooling garment — underwear equipped with chilled water tubes. But both have been ruled out.


“At this particular moment, we know where (the leak) did not come from,” Parmitano said. Parmitano became Italy’s first spacewalker last week. His spacesuit functioned perfectly the first time around. Tuesday’s excursion was a continuation of the maintenance work.

Still suspect: a water tank that is central to a spacesuit’s cooling system.

“NASA specialists and engineers still are working very hard to find out exactly what happened, and I’m sure that they will find both the problem and the solution,” the Italian Air Force officer said.


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Eric Write head editor and chief at The Pluto Daily