It might be time for NASA to ditch its ageing ISS spacesuits. The space agency announced a pause to all its spacewalks until it has a better handle on a lingering and frightening issue that’s causing water to leak inside of astronauts’ helmets.
The latest incident happened during an extravehicular activity (EVA) in March, but this isn’t the first time a helmet has filled up with water during a spacewalk — a potentially life-threatening scenario for astronauts. NASA has raised concerns that the ageing spacesuits on board the ISS might not be usable anymore and that it may be time to swap them out for a newer model currently in development. The spacesuits that NASA uses now are more than 40 years old, and the agency seems to be running out of fully functional space suits; only 18 usable units are available on the ISS, according to a 2017 report.
The most recent water leak took place on March 23, when NASA astronaut Raja Chari and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer were installing hoses on a radiator beam valve module outside the space station. By the end of the seven-hour spacewalk, Maurer — who was venturing out on his first spacewalk — noticed some water and dampness inside his visor. The astronaut took photos for the ground control team to analyse, but the space agency said the issue posed no threat to Maurer’s life.
During a meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel last week, Susan Helms, a former NASA astronaut who serves on the panel, said that spacewalks are on pause for the space agency in light of the ongoing investigation into the water leak. “Because NASA is thinking through the risk posture for these suits, which are ageing, the [spacesuit] is currently no-go for planned EVAs pending an investigation into what they discover,” she said.
Dana Weigel, deputy manager of the space station program at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, later confirmed that the agency was holding off on spacewalks during a Tuesday briefing on the upcoming Boeing CST-100 flight test. “We won’t do a planned EVA until we’ve had a chance to really address and rule out major system failure modes,” Weigel said.
The suits can only be properly examined by engineers on Earth, so the agency is planning on sending them back during the upcoming SpaceX cargo Dragon mission in early June. Until then, NASA will consider the risk of conducting a spacewalk as opposed to the risk of ignoring a potential repair that might need to be done on the space station exterior. “We’ll have to look at risk versus risk,” Weigel said during the briefing.
The latest incident is one of a series of horrifying accounts of astronauts discovering water leaks in their suits while floating in space. Back in 2013, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano noticed a water leak inside his helmet that forced an early wrap-up to the spacewalk. Parmitano was able to re-enter the ISS airlock but was having difficulty breathing as 1.5 litres of water had formed inside his helmet.
“I feel it covering the sponge on my earphones and I wonder whether I’ll lose audio contact. The water has also almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision,” Parmitano recounted in a chilling blog post later. “At that moment, as I turn ‘upside-down’, two things happen: the Sun sets, and my ability to see — already compromised by the water — completely vanishes, making my eyes useless; but worse than that, the water covers my nose.”
That same spacesuit was used for a spacewalk two years later, and nearly drowned another astronaut in space. NASA astronaut Terry Virts donned spacesuit #3005, and after completing the spacewalk he noticed free-floating droplets of water and a damp absorption pad in his helmet.
NASA unveiled shiny new spacesuits back in 2019 for astronauts to wear outside the ISS and for the agency’s upcoming Artemis missions to the Moon, but funding shortages have delayed the suits’ deployment. The lifetime of the current spacesuits was accordingly extended to 2028. Given the situation with the water leaks, it’s not clear how NASA will handle future spacewalks.