NASA has given the green light to restart US-led spacewalks off the International Space Station (ISS) after the completion of an investigation into a serious spacewalk accident in March.
It means NASA’s next spacewalk could take place as early as mid-November, the space agency said this week.
NASA decided to stop operations outside the ISS after a spacewalk in which a thin layer of moisture appeared inside astronaut Matthias Maurer’s helmet.
An investigation revealed that up to 50% of Maurer’s visor had been coated with water, with additional moisture found in an absorbent pad on the back of his helmet.
Although Maurer’s case was not considered an emergency at the time, NASA described it as a “close call” and therefore decided to stop spacewalks until it was able to determine the cause.
Water samples from the helmet and some space suit hardware were returned to Earth for analysis.
“During the investigation, the space station team completed a detailed test, disassembly and evaluation of the water samples and hardware of the suit 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 water likely appeared in the helmet due to “several variables such as crew effort and crew cooling settings. [that] led to the generation of relatively higher than normal quantities of condensate within the system ”.
In response to its findings, NASA has updated various operating procedures for such situations and added new hardware to minimize scenarios that could lead to water accumulation.
“The safety of the crew is the top priority of NASA and our international partners,” said Kathryn Lueders, associate administrator for NASA’s space operations mission direction. “I am proud of the work of the space station and ground crews to protect our crew members, for taking the time to close investigations and for continually finding ways to mitigate risks in human spaceflight.”
Since NASA stopped US-led spacewalks in May, only three have taken place outside the ISS, involving mostly Russian cosmonauts.
When the next spacewalk takes place, NASA astronauts are expected to continue with the work of implementing new solar panels for the station as part of the ongoing work to upgrade the orbital outpost’s power supply.
For some, Maurer’s experience brought to mind a near-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 drops of water began to penetrate his nose, mouth and eyes, making it difficult to see his surroundings and, more worryingly, to breathe.
Thanks to his extensive training, Parmitano was able to stay calm and find his way back to the airlock and safety. A later investigation attributed the cause to a contaminated fan pump inside the spacesuit.
For more information on spacewalks, check out this gallery of stunning images showing astronauts who have worked in orbit over the years.