Astronaut Luca Parmitano describes near-drowning experience in space

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy (left) and European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano, both Expedition 36 flight engineers, attired in their Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuits, participate in a â??dry runâ?? in the International Space Stationâ??s Quest airlock in preparation for the first of two sessions of extravehicular (EVA) scheduled for July 9 and July 16. NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, flight engineer, assists Cassidy and Parmitano. NASA

The Italian astronaut who nearly drowned when his helmet filled with water during a July 16 spacewalk took to his blog this week to describe the experience.

Luca Parmitano, 36, started the post by recounting his excitement in the moments immediately preceding the mission.

"I'm not tired -- quite the reverse! I feel fully charged, as if electricity and not blood were running through my veins. I just want to make sure I experience and remember everything," he wrote.

After releasing the door and securing their safety cables, Parmitano and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy set out on separate routes towards the same part of the International Space Station, Parmitano taking the more direct path. He completed his first two tasks more than 40 minutes ahead of schedule. That's when the mission started to veer off track.

"At this exact moment, just as I'm thinking about how to uncoil the cable neatly ... I 'feel' that something is wrong. The unexpected sensation of water at the back of my neck surprises me -- and I'm in a place where I'd rather not be surprised."

Something was indeed wrong. Very wrong. NASA would later link the malfunction to his spacesuit backpack, but at the time the only thing on Parmitano's mind was reaching safety.

After Parmitano alerted mission control, Cassidy came over to attempt to figure out where the water is coming from. Parmitano says he could tell the liquid was too cold to be sweat, and didn't see anything leaking from his drinking water valve, so mission control told him to head back to the airlock.

With water already obscuring his vision, he had to turn upside down in order to release his safety cable.

"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 -- a really awful sensation that I make worse by my vain attempts to move the water by shaking my head. ... I can't even be sure that the next time I breathe I will fill my lungs with air and not liquid. To make matters worse, I realise [sic] that I can't even understand which direction I should head in to get back to the airlock."

Frantic, he started feeling his way along the safety cable, finding the handles that lead to the airlock along the way. Looking through a "curtain of water before my eyes," he worked his way into the airlock. Cassidy soon followed, and they started the repressurization process.

As they repressurized, Parmitano lost audio contact. The water filled his ears. It takes several minutes to repressurize, and he says that he considered opening his helmet during the process. This would've left him unconscious, but, as he says, he figured that fainting would be better than drowning.

"Finally, with an unexpected wave of relief," as repressurization ended, the other crew members rushed in to remove his helmet.

NASA has suspended all spacewalks as it continues to investigate the equipment malfunction.

Parmitano will return to Earth in November. In the meantime, he has had plenty of time to reflect on the near-drowning experience.

He closes the blog post with this thought:

"Space is a harsh, inhospitable frontier and we are explorers, not colonisers. The skills of our engineers and the technology surrounding us make things appear simple when they are not, and perhaps we forget this sometimes.

"Better not to forget."

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.

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