NASA Mishap Investigation Report on Leaking Spacesuit

Credit : NASA

Credit : NASA

Yesterday NASA held a media telecon to announce the preliminary findings of the Mishap Investigation Board which was convened to analyze the leak which nearly overwhelmed Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano during a spacewalk outside ISS on July 16. The incident took place early in the spacewalk when water began flooding his helmet, forcing an end to the walk, and a temporary restriction on further U.S. spacewalks.

Although the ultimate source of the leak has not been conclusively determined and the investigation, as well as an entirely separate engineering analysis will likely go on for some time, it appears problem was caused “when aluminum silicate debris clogged a water pipe and forced liquid into the suit’s ventilation system.”

The Mishap Investigation Board report (here) identified five issues which cannot help but remind us of other, even more serious failures.

1: Program emphasis was to maximize crew time on orbit for utilization

2: ISS Community perception was that drink bags leak

3: Flight Control Team’s perception of the anomaly report process as being resource intensive made them reluctant to         invoke it.

4: No one applied knowledge of the physics of water behavior in zero-g to water coming from the PLSS vent loop

5: The occurrence of minor amounts of water in the helmet was normalized 

Taking a longer term view, the spacesuit near disaster can be considered a cautionary tale for those eager to head off planet and begin settling the solar system.  There is no substitute for extensive and repetitive experience in using the critical tools on which everyone’s lives will depend.

Equipment is inevitably going to break.  The key is knowing when and how that generally happens, how to fix it, and what repair components have to be readily available.  Nature doesn’t make things that easy however.  The more familiar we are with something, the easier it is to mistake the first indications of new failure modes for something we think we already understand.

Posted in: NASA

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