Spacesuits are leaking water and NASA is holding back any spacewalks until they can fix the problem

NASA’s Matthias Maurer performs a spacewalk outside the ISS on March 23, 2022. At the end of the EVA, water was discovered inside his helmet. Credit: NASA

NASA spacesuits are getting old. Extra-vehicular mobility units – EMUs for short – were designed and built for spacewalks outside of NASA’s space shuttles, which last flew in 2011. Nowadays, EMUs do integral part of the maintenance and modernization of the International Space Station (ISS) exterior, providing the crew with the opportunity to live and work in the vacuum of space for long periods of time (spacewalks regularly last from 6 at 8 o’clock). However, at the end of the last spacewalk on March 23, NASA astronaut Kayla Barron discovered water in the helmet of German astronaut Matthias Maurer while she was helping him remove the combination.

In microgravity, water can bead up in clumps and cling to the face and eyes, seriously endangering the astronaut inside a leaky suit. As a precautionary and preventive measure, future spacewalks have been suspended.

At a May 17 press conference, NASA officials shared details of the decision to suspend upcoming extravehicular activities (EVAs). “Until we better understand what the causal factors may have been during the last EVA with our EMU, we are not going for a nominal EVA,” said Dana Weigel (Deputy Director, Space Station Program ). “We won’t do a planned EVA until we’ve had a chance to really address and rule out the major failure modes in the system.”

There were four upcoming EVAs scheduled for 2022, two each in August and November. These spacewalks were intended to perform upgrades to the station’s power systems, but will now only proceed after close inspection of the faulty suit.

So far, they have not yet found the cause of the problem. “We’re looking for any obvious signs of contamination or fouling or anything else that may have entered our system. We don’t see it yet,” Wiegel said.

New spacesuit designs are in the works, but they are suitable for EVAs on the lunar surface for the upcoming Artemis program. And with the ISS due to retire in the the next decade (currently set for 2031), the probability of new EMUs for the ISS is low. According to a 2017 Office of Inspector General report, eighteen EMUs were manufactured during the Shuttle era, and of these, eleven remain, four of which are on the station, while the rest are in use. on the ground for testing and training.

That doesn’t mean we won’t see more EVAs in the near future. Additional testing could find the source of the fault, and additional precautions could allow the EVA program to continue. Water samples from the failed suit will be sent back to Earth for analysis. Any identifiable contaminant they find will help determine the source of the leak.

Over the past decade, several improvements have already been made to EMUs to protect them against water, which is necessary in suits for drinking and cooling. An absorbent pad was added to the back of the astronaut’s head in 2014, along with a breathing tube, to be used in the event that water covers the astronaut’s mouth and nostrils. These changes were prompted by a close call in 2013, when astronaut Luca Parmitano discovered his helmet was filling with water, making it difficult to see and breathe. He had to cut short his spacewalk and return to the safety of the station to deal with the dangerous situation before it cut off his airway.

In the near future, while the investigation continues, NASA says it will consider using EMUs if necessary in an emergency situation.

“Depending on what went wrong and the risk to the spacecraft and to the mission as a whole, we will see where we are with the investigation, where we are with the additional mitigation measures that we put in place. and we’ll specifically make a call depending on the eventuality and where we are at any given time,” Wiegel said.

Additionally, the Sokol spacesuits used by Russian crew members aboard the ISS are still functioning (Russian cosmonauts last performed an EVA on April 28), providing a secondary option should the need arise. an emergency EVA.

Additional absorption pads for installation in EMU helmets arrived at the ISS aboard the Boeing Starliner last week, which made its first-ever successful docking with the ISS during an uncrewed test flight on May 20. Additional EMU upgrades needed will become clear as the investigation continues.

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