NASA admitted today that Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano nearly drowned during his July 16 spacewalk last year because information about a previous water leak didn't make its way up the chain of command.
In a damning report unveiled today, investigators faulted International Space Station management for giving the go ahead for a spacewalk when they knew they had a problem with a water leak the week before. Investigators also criticized management for not immediately stopping the spacewalk as soon as Parmitano reported water in his helmet.
Even now, nine months later, NASA officials admit they don't know precisely why water flooded into Luca’s helmet. They know contamination blocked a fan pump, which caused the water to back up –- but they don’t know where the contamination originated.
The spacewalk almost drowned Parmitano and shocked flight controllers at Mission Control. Flight Director David Korth abruptly halted the spacewalk after an hour and a half, then later at a news conference explained things his team worries about –- equipment issues, micro-meteorites and crew performance. But drowning wasn't high on the list.
In a follow-up news conference, flight directors said they were surprised by the accident. However, the same spacesuit had a leak on July 9. The report released today noted the information did not work its way up the chain of command.
The issues raised by the investigation are familiar: How often does a system have to fail before it is acknowledged as a problem?
The Space Shuttle Columbia accident, which killed seven astronauts in 2003, was blamed on NASA’s repeated failure to understand the damage that foam could do when it slammed into a space shuttle.
It was only Parmitano's second time out on a spacewalk and just an hour into it his helmet filled with several liters of water, giving him no way of clearing his eyes, nose or mouth –- something no one at NASA had seen before.
His spacewalking partner, astronaut Chris Cassidy reported back to Mission Control, “It's a lot of water, his head is saturated, it's in his eyes, as well as in his nose and mouth. ... Squeeze my hand if you’re fine, Luca."
"I don’t think he can. His voice is going out," Cassidy added. "He looks miserable but okay.”
The design of the spacesuits used by the astronauts is 35 years old, and the agency is down to just 12 in use. Engineers have been working for years on a new design to deal with whatever mission comes next –- capturing an asteroid, going back to the moon or to Mars.