NASA has given the green light to restart U.S.-led spacewalks outside of the International Space Station (ISS) following the completion of an investigation into a serious incident that occurred during a spacewalk in March.
This means that the next NASA spacewalk could take place as early as mid-November, the space agency said this week.
NASA decided to halt operations outside the ISS after a spacewalk in which a thin layer of moisture appeared inside the helmet of astronaut Matthias Maurer.
An investigation revealed that up to 50% of Maurer’s visor had been coated in water, with additional moisture found in an absorption pad at the rear of his helmet.
Although Maurer’s case wasn’t deemed an emergency at the time, NASA described it as a “close call” and so decided to halt spacewalks until it could determine the cause.
Water samples taken from the helmet and some spacesuit hardware were returned to Earth 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 said this week.
No hardware failures were found within the suit, leading investigators to conclude that the water likely appeared in the helmet because of “several variables such as crew exertion and crew cooling settings [that] led to the generation of comparatively larger than normal amounts of condensation within the system.”
In response to its findings, NASA has updated various operational procedures for such situations and added new hardware to minimize scenarios that could lead to water accumulation.
“Crew safety is the top priority of NASA and our international partners,” said Kathryn Lueders, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate. “I’m proud of the space station and ground teams’ work to keep our crew members safe, for taking the time necessary to close out the investigation, and for continually finding ways to mitigate risks in human spaceflight.”
Since NASA halted U.S.-led spacewalks in May, only three have taken place outside the ISS, mostly involving Russian cosmonauts.
When the next spacewalk takes place, NASA astronauts are expected to continue with work rolling out new solar arrays for the station as part of ongoing work to upgrade the orbital outpost’s power supply.
For some, Maurer’s experience brought to mind an almost catastrophic incident that occurred during an ISS spacewalk in 2013.
Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano was working outside the station when water began to appear in his helmet. He later described how blobs of water began to get into his nose, mouth, and eyes, making it hard to see his surroundings and, more worryingly, to breathe.
Thanks to his thorough training, Parmitano was able to remain calm and find his way back to the airlock and safety. A subsequent investigation put the cause down to a contaminated fan pump inside the spacesuit.
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