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NASA marks 20 years of ISS spacewalks, but not all have been smooth sailing

NASA is marking 20 years since one of its astronauts emerged for the first time from the International Space Station’s Quest airlock into the cold void of space.

Celebrating 20 Years of International Space Station Spacewalks

The historic spacewalk — or extravehicular activity (EVA) as they’re officially known — took place on July 21, 2001, and was one of more than 240 that have taken place outside the orbiting outpost over the years.

Earlier EVAs conducted at the ISS from 1998 through early 2001 involved its construction, with NASA’s space shuttle transporting many parts of the habitable satellite into orbit.

Since the Quest airlock saw its first use two decades ago, regular EVAs have been used for maintenance and upgrade work,  with astronauts from more than 10 countries taking part.

In a video (above) posted by NASA this week, astronaut Mike Gernhardt, whose three ISS spacewalks included the first one from the station’s Quest airlock 20 years ago, described that particular EVA as a “huge experience” that involved years of preparation.

Taking place on the anniversary of the first moonwalk, Gernhardt remembered the “big rush” he felt as he emerged from the airlock for the first time — though he said this was mainly because the experience made him feel like he was about to fall to Earth 250 miles below.

The NASA astronaut said that during those early EVAs he and his fellow crew members developed many tools and devices that are still used today, including a special bag for carrying equipment, and a body restraint tether used by astronauts to quickly secure themselves when moving to a new spot outside the station.

While spacewalks certainly carry risks for astronauts, NASA’s excellent training methods, safety procedures, and carefully designed equipment ensure that dangerous incidents are few and far between. Thankfully no one has died or been badly injured during an EVA at the space station, but there have been a number of unnerving events over the last 20 years.

Perhaps the most serious of these involved Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, who almost drowned during a spacewalk in 2013 when his helmet started to inexplicably fill with water. In his own astonishing account of the incident, Parmitano revealed that while working outside the ISS, blobs of water started getting into his nose, mouth, and eyes, messing up his vision and, more worryingly, preventing him from breathing properly. Fortunately, Parmitano’s calm response and extensive training allowed him to make it back to the airlock safely, where the issue, put down to a contaminated fan pump inside the spacesuit, was safely resolved.

Looking ahead to future spacewalks, Gernhardt said many will take place on the moon in the coming years when NASA sends the next man and first woman to the lunar surface in the first crewed visit since 1972. These walks, the astronaut said, will be geared much more toward science and exploration rather than the kind of maintenance and upgrade work that we usually see at the ISS.

The first American to walk in space was Ed White in 1965. Check out how he looked during the historic event and also enjoy a gallery of other stunning images showing spacewalks from over the years.

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